Over the past few years, a Canadian publishing house called Kids Can has brought out a series of books, each containing a single narrative poem. They're all poems you will have heard of, if not at some point memorized, such as Casey at the Bat, The Highwayman, The Lady of Shalott, The Raven, even Jabberwocky. I like all their selections, and I can personally vouch for the long-standing appeal of at least two of them. I learned every line of The Highwayman myself when I was eleven and have recited it in many settings over many years -- in a dark parking lot to one friend, in my college-level programming classes every semester for more than twenty years, and, relevant to this morning, to kids during my stints as a writer in the schools. And not once did it bomb. After all, the story has so much to offer -- romance, a bleak and beautiful period setting, a little understated blood, ghosts -- that I'm just grateful that no one in Hollywood has ruined it yet.
Then, there's The Raven. A few years ago, I read it to a middle school class and, hoping to offset any flagging of attention that might have resulted from its length, set it up first by telling the kids that they could chime in on the chorus. "NEVERMORE," they croaked--- a little tentatively at the beginning, but, by the end, with such vigor that I'm sure the poor person trying to teach fractions on the other side of the wall must have been going crazy.
Each of the books in the series is illustrated by a different artist, with a different set of interprative talents. In The Raven, for example, Ryan Price's pictures have Poe's atmosphere down perfectly. His black and slightly tinted illustrations loom over sepia pages of text the way The Raven looms over the narrator as he seeks solace in his books for the loss of the love of his life, Lenore. And either Price or the book designer has rendered the word, "Nevermore," large and isolatedly, in the kind of script Poe's tortured lover might have let slip from his pen in one of his many moments of weakness. A stroke, pun intended, of near genius.
The pictures for The Lady of Shalott, aren't quite so successful. They strike me as too modern, too angular, to fit either the period (the Middle Ages) or the romantic, Camelot spirit of the poem. And there's something wrong with Ms. Cote's palette. Maybe it's because her Chagall-y pale yellows, powder blues, blacks, and reddish sepias, don't shimmer, so they can't successfully render either "the magic web with colors gay" or the mirror into which the Lady of Shalott looks. Or maybe the problem isn't that but that her palette isn't deep enough. I would have thought something with a more late-Victorian, pre-Raphaelite feel would have suited the story line's period better.
Despite this reservation, which I'm not sure everyone will share, the book is still compelling because the poem is such a good choice, especially for young readers, in its ability to take them far away to long ago. The books are The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe,and The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The publisher is Kid's Can. If you teach or have kids yourself or simply love poetry and the exciting forms that it's currently taking, check them out. They're well worth your time.
Copyright 2007© Lola Haskins
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