During this trying year of our national life, I’ve longed for the rhyming books whose pages I grabbed at when they were first read to me. Sometimes an almost physical hunger comes over me for Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (Chronicle Books, $19.99, 124 pp.), which first appeared in 1885 under the title Penny Whistles. In these poems, darkness falls; it is time for tea; the streetlamps are lit. A shadow moves in the sunlight but is absent at dawn. The nursemaid, a solid block of silent authority, is visible or expected. The garden, a farm, a railway carriage, or a river may open the world. But the child needs only a few toys, or flowers seen from the ground, or another child as a companion, to fly over vast landscapes or travel the globe. He leaves a toy soldier outdoors through the seasons, hidden in a hole in the lawn, to watch the sky and experience the movements of nature around him; but the child must speak of what the soldier cannot.
This is atmosphere unique to Stevenson, who was an invalid from a young age and voyaged to the South Seas near the end of his short life. Other authors who “don’t grow up” tend to be pretty obnoxious, but this one, entertaining himself in his sick bed with toys and later with words, has a strangely pure appeal, as if he has been lured away from self-pity and self-dramatizing through his own imaginative power. His “Where Go the Boats?” has been set to music and is a lullaby I remember in its entirety. It ends:
On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
Away down the hill.
Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.
Among other instant-classic poetry books for young children is Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (HarperCollins, $19.99, 176 pp.). It came out too late for me, but when I was babysitting I was impressed by how one group of siblings, assisted by the author’s comical line drawings, dramatized certain of the poems with rather shocking emotional realism.
Some of the collection reprises Edward Lear and other nineteenth-century children’s nonsense poets:
In the undergrowth
There dwells a Bloath
Who feeds upon poets and tea.
Luckily, I know this about him
While he knows almost nothing of me!
Another older strain is the didacticism. There are surprisingly close parallels to the famous German collection Struwwelpeter. For example, the Daumenlutscher or Thumbsucker has the too-tempting appendages lopped off with scissors by a monstrous tailor; Silverstein warns that a snail living in the nose will bite off a picker’s finger. In other verses, horror-story edification is updated. Silverstein’s screen-addled Jimmy Jet turns into a TV set himself. (“And now instead of him watching TV / We all sit around watching him.”) He is a cousin of Mike Teavee in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971), who gets shrunken by the machine. Bad things happen, for reasons; it’s called storytelling.
There is also some nice parody on smarmy literature and music for children. The Little Blue Engine thinks it can, thinks it can, thinks it can, but crashes onto the rocks at the bottom of the hill. Santa, desperate to deliver the toys on time, has to bribe one holdout reindeer with a magical flea. “And the moral of this yuletide tale / You know as well as me.”