Thursday, November 30, 2006

Today I read Carnival of the Animals: Poems Inspired by Saint-Saëns' Music, edited by Judith Chernaik, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura.

The poems are all based on the "zoological fantasy" that is Saint-Saëns's Carnival of the Animals. Trivia alert for music lovers: during his life-time, Saint-Saëns refused to allow a performance of the completed work, and only its most famous movement, "The Swan," was performed in public. The entire musical composition is included on a CD that accompanies the book, as are spoken performances of the poems in the book.

The poems in this book are the sort of poetry for children that I really enjoy: smart, thoughtful poems that are not "dumbed down" for an underaged audience. Many of them work on multiple levels -- "Personages with Long Ears" by Gerard Benson comes to mind in this category. On its surface, it's about donkeys attending a concert. Given the description of these particular donkeys, however, I believe it's also a sly criticism of critics everywhere, whether at a concert, at the theatre, or in print.

I also particularly enjoyed "Tortoise" by Judith Chernaik, which was short but sweet. It reflects the pulsing beat of the movement in the Carnival of the Animals opens with these lines:

Under the mottled shell of the old tortoise
beats the heart of young dancer.

The accompanying illustration shows tortoises dancing on oval platforms. The tortoises aren't truly anthropomorphised -- they look like tortoises standing on their hind legs. And yet how happy they look.

Another of my favorite poems was "Elephant Eternity" by Adrian Mitchell, in part for its imagery and in part for its repetitive use of the word elephants, as in "elephants elephants walking like time," and "elephants elephants bathing like happiness."

Although by the same artist, the illustrations, like the poems, are in varied styles to reflect the feel of the poem -- or is it to reflect the feel of the music? Similarly, the fonts used for the poems varies as well. "The Swan" is in a flowing script; "Lion" in a jagged-edged type.

A lovely book full of rich language and images, this one would be a perfect choice for young music fans as well as those who love poetry.

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