The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books Image
Big Picture Image
Meilo So,1997.
See permission.
The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

The Beauty of the Beast: Poems from the Animal Kingdom comp. by Jack Prelutsky; illus. by Meilo So, 1997. 101p
Library ed. ISBN 0-679-57058-4$26.99  
Trade ed. ISBN 0-679-87058-X$25.00Gr. 4-8

You can't accuse Jack Prelutsky of resting on his laurels. This wide-ranging collection differs substantially from his sturdy and chantable anthologies, his high-spirited collections of his own verse, or even his focused partnerships with Peter Sís depic ting creatures mythical and haunting. The poetry here is more musing and thoughtful than in those other compilations, with verse forms ranging from free verse to haiku to various metered rhymes. There's a diverse group of poets as well, with John Gay, T ed Hughes, and Yvor Winters rubbing shoulders with Jane Yolen, Valerie Worth, and Jonathan London (not to mention Prelutsky himself); selections are generally fresh and unanthologized, with a few more familiar entries (William Carlos Williams' feline "Poe m," for example) balancing things out. Prelutsky's own original haikus introduce each of the five sections, which focus, respectively, on insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals (the leaving of mammals to the last, which could be viewed as either hum ble or contrary, is refreshing). Tone and vocabulary also vary considerably; some poems are lighthearted, some intense, some lyrical, some plainspoken; there are some entries accessible to most readers immediately and some where the pleasure of sound may well precede a youthful understanding of sense. The book shines with the wonderful generosity of excess, containing a richness that has the patience to be savored slowly over several browsings and readings.

This collection would be at least enticing no matter what the setting, but the visuals here enhance the words' poetry with their own. So's watercolors bring an unusual rootedness to the medium: inky dark-edged billows of pigment contrast with rough prin t-like impressions and dry-brush scratchings, stippling here balances a sweeping curve there. Some of her animal figures evince an impressionistic, intensely colored speed reminiscent of early Brian Wildsmith, while other scenes offer a lightness and flu idity resembling the art of Lisbeth Zwerger. Choosing a picture for our cover proved to be a delightfully difficult task: was it going to be the velvety octopus floating through the dappled aqua deeps, or perhaps the pink-tongued tiger who dips his sket ched paws in the edge of the pond as he drinks? What about the dun mare, whose arched neck and delicate, stiffly brushed mane are reminiscent of Japanese watercolors? Is there any way to use the spread depicting lines of geese soaring past the sunset, t heir wings at precisely individual angles? Can we live without the wonderful roundness of the rabbit amid the lacy grass and scarlet poppies? (In the end, as you doubtless gather, the answer to the last question was no.)

It's not just that the pictures are beautiful, it's also that the book is beautifully designed. The roomy picture-book-sized pages creatively interweave art and text on snowy-white backgrounds, with a multitude of critters per page. Bats swoop across the spread in smoky gray shadows as text appears in a beam of white light. The "Giraffes" poem descends between the lengthy necks of a pair of said animals. Schools of iridescent fish swim through the briny verses and circle the section title. The endp apers offer "what is this?" closeups of butterfly wings, leopard spots, shimmering fish scales, and tightly packed feathers. Even the cover under the book jacket is filled with the creatures of air, water, and land, offering rows of tiny thumbnail images of the beasts within. The overall feeling is that of a world bursting with poetry and creatures, the inhabitants of a literarily inclined ark streaming out of confinement.

The result is a dramatic, playful, and eminently browsable volume that makes the animal kingdom seem a royal one indeed. A worthy successor to William Cole's classic anthologies, I Went to the Animal Fair (BCCB 1/59) and The Birds and the Beasts Were There (3/64), this can be read aloud to just about any age, who can then be left with the book to hunt down-in poetry, that is-their favorite animal, and who will doubtless find themselves reconsidering their dismissal of others. An in dex of authors and titles is included.

Deborah Stevenson, Assistant Editor

Big Picture Image
January's Bulletin cover illustration
by Meilo So from
The Beauty of the Beast,
Copyright 1997. Used by
permission of Knopf.

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This page was last updated on January 1, 1998.