Sunday, August 23, 2009


ONCE UPON A TWICE by Denise Doyen, illustrated by Barry Moser (Random House)

Once upon a twice,
In the middle of the nice,
The moon was on the rice
And the Mice were scoutaprowl...

Lewis Carroll's poem "Jabberwocky," featured in the companion to Alice in Wonderland, THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, is considered a masterwork of nonsense verse. Longtime the manxome foe was sought: the student who could match the teacher, and Doyen may have raised the vorpal sword. Using the same structure as "Jabberwocky" (a description of setting, a warning by someone older and wiser, a flouting of good advice, a conflagration, a celebration, and a return to the setting), Doyen takes us into the world of predator and prey. Amidst the tilted heads of hungry barn owls and the glow of amphibious eyes, "the world afield is dangerouse./Foraging is--for a mouse--/A nightly knightly duel and joust..." but all the same, a little mouse named Jam ventures an adventure:

Out in the open, in the clear,
Where any wisenmouse would fear,
Jam licks his paw, he grooms an ear,
And never hears approaching hisssss.

Half submerged, a slender queen
Esses 'cross the pond unseen,
Espies the furlickt mouse's sheen.
Sly serprentine--bound not to miss...

With no shortage of the kind of suspense that keeps eyes wide, acrobatic acts of portmanteau abound, verse winding and then pivoting on its own lyrical scheme with the hypnotic charm of a witch casting a midnight spell. Against the dark palette, the moon illuminates every page like a flashlight on a secret, nocturnal world; the illustrator's stylistic mix of realism and fancy is fitting. Though the connections to Carroll's work are plain, it's hard not to also be reminded of good ol' Beatrix Potter's TALE OF PETER RABBIT in a small creature's brazen oblivion to warnings, and the comeuppance of a good scare. ONCE UPON A TWICE ends with the suggestion to "be forewarned," but like the Disney Alice, you can be sure that "I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it" is a more likely mantra for children and other small creatures. They know their own capacity for mischief and adventure...even the likelihood of it, surely...and at the completion of these pages, they can hold it like their own secret in the dark.

This is beautiful writing with well-matched pictures, deserving of of repeated, breathless readings. For the young audience, it will give them a renewed ownership of the validity of their nonsense talk and accidental mixed-up words. I wonder if this will be one of those years where a picture book is considered for the Newbery award? If so, do you think the shiny round sticker will be confused with the moon on the cover? Such problems. (4 and up)

Also of interest:
More beautiful language in a picture book.
ZERO IS THE LEAVES ON THE TREE by Betsy Franco, illustrated by Shino Arihara (Tricycle Press)

Zero is:
"...the balls in the bin at recess time."
"...the sound of snowflakes landing on our mitten."
"...the kites in the sky once the wind stops blowing."
The number "best defined by what it's not" gets effective and poetic attention across all the seasons, and across matte, gouche double-paged spreads stylistically reminiscent of Mary Serfozo and Keiko Narahashi's WHO SAID RED? (out of print, really?! For shame!). Children play hard and wonder hard in these recognizable scenes that convey the idea that numbers are everywhere, even when that number represents the absence of number. Pitch-perfect for primary grades and lovely lovely lovely, this book knows how to make a whole lot of something out of nothing. (4 and up)

On a personal note:
Speaking of wordsmiths, it is with sadness that I report the passing of the legendary children's poet Karla Kuskin. In her honor, a recommendation from the archives:

MOON, HAVE YOU MET MY MOTHER? by Karla Kuskin, illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier (HarperCollins) At last! Yum-yum, a beautiful, big, bulky book full of the wordplay from poetry's favorite playmate! After having fifty books of poetry published, here are three-hundred-some pages of her tripping, skipping rhymes, interspersed with silliness ("Being a strawberry isn't all pleasing./ This morning they put me in ice cream./ I'm freezing.") as well as introspection ("What separates each one of us/from all the beasts and bugs and birds?/ Well they have feathers, fur and wings/ but we have words,/ and words,/ and words"). The poems are all untitled which takes getting used to, but once you do the volume seems to meander pleasantly, all in all feeling like a leisurely visit with an observant, humorous friend. Some of her poems about books and reading warrant purchase by any and all librarians and booklovers, but all of the poems are so deceptively simple and conversational that children who read it will think, "oh, poetry is someone talking to me!" The new Karla Kuskin collection: Don't leave National Poetry Month without it. (5 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at


Avram Eisen said...

A review as breathlessly and beautifully written as the book it promotes

Susan Bearman said...

In addition to collecting books, I collect names. Like Francine Prose, Denise Doyen may have the perfect writerly name, particularly if your prediction comes to pass:

doyen (fem. doyenne) n. the most respected or prominent person in a particular field.


Related Posts with Thumbnails