One of the rhymes we used to recite when I was growing up went like this: “Kristen bo bisten, tea arlickle fisten. Tea-legged toe-legged bow-legged Kristen.” (Carson McCullers uses her version of it in the novel The Member of the Wedding: “Frankie the lankie the alaga fankie, the tee-legged, toe-legged bow-legged Frankie.”) I taught this little ditty to N when she was a toddler, and she absolutely loved it when she realized she could apply it to anyone. Daddy bo baddy, mommy bo bummy, auntie bo bantie, gramma bo bamma, and so on.
For the last week or so we’ve been soaking up rhymes. We’re reading Shel Silverstein‘s Where the Sidewalk Ends, which a friend gave N for her birthday. I thought it would be a fun follow-up to Roald Dahl’s nutty rhymes, while we await the Dahl biographies we’ve ordered. At first N was so quiet listening to these poems that I assumed she wasn’t terribly engaged. I was wrong. Her wheels were really turning. The illustrations — spare, black and white, and occasionally grotesque — intrigued her too.
“A poem doesn’t have to rhyme, does it?” she asked.
“But it can.”
“Oh yes, it certainly can.”
“And it can be both too — rhyming and not rhyming.”
And next thing I knew she had jotted down her own, and dedicated it to her dad. When he arrived home, she tapped her toe as she recited it:
One day I had a neighbour, her name was Mrs. Shabour.
She was odd in noticed ways, her eyes were shaded waves.
She walked on all fours, she always slept in snores.
She had a pack of 48 dogs who always dined on frogs.
But the oddest thing of all was her neck, oh yes her neck.
Her neck was a giraf!
Unfortunately the zoo keepers took Mrs. Neighbour to the zoo!!!!!!
Quickly thereafter, another was composed for me:
There once was a tree in little town, and a woman lived in that tree.
And her name was Mrs. Thumble.
One day Mrs. Thumble had a great tumble
And fell 50 feet in the air.
And of course she broke 3000 bones!
But she got them repared in 3000 years,
And never climbed a tree again.
I love these little scribblings, and a third poem attached to a bunch of pussy willows we gave to our neighbours. N’s Shel-inspired drawings are delightful too. I will have to dig up some more books that play with language (suggestions please!), since N seems obviously taken with this, and eager to expand the playing herself. I’ve read that publishers are less likely to want rhyming stories these days, because they’re harder to sell in translation, and that seems such a shame. But I’m sure they are also inundated with bad-rhyme submissions. The poet-who-doesn’t-know-it is easily seduced by words that rhyme and lets them get in the way of the story, rather than lifting the story up. That’s why rhymes are too often tedious, or even groan-worthy.
I’ll admit I don’t love all of the Sidewalk poems, but in all the book feels original and surprising. “Lester” moved me enough to dog-ear the page, but N quickly unfolded it (she always uses bookmarks). It’s about a boy who’s given a magic wish, and uses it to wish for two more. With each of these three, he wishes for three more , and so on and so on, until his wishes multiply into the billions and beyond.
And more … and more … they multiplied
While other people smiled and cried
And loved and reached and touched and felt.
Lester sat amid his wealth
Stacked mountain-high like stacks of gold,
Sat and counted — and grew old.
And then one Thursday night they found him
Dead — with his wishes piled around him.
Which of course led us to talk about wishing. A little aside: yesterday I was out walking, and passed one of my favourite book stores, Another Story. There was my book, And Me Among Them, in the window. Turns out the shop is having a Canada Reads type competition of their own, and my book is one of the chosen competitors. As I was relating the story to my husband and N last night, N gasped aloud.
“Oh Mom,” she said, her voice riddled with anxiety. “I don’t want you to be in a competition!”
A pause, an uncomfortable cringe.
“Well…” And then ever-so gently: “What if your book doesn’t win?”
“That’s okay. I’m flattered to have been chosen.”
“But Mom … do you wish you’ll win?”
“I do. But it’s better than wishing for more wishes.”