DON'T EAT SPIDERS
Robert Heidbreder. Illustrated by Karen Patkau.
Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press, 1985.
48pp., paperbound boards, $9.95.
ISBN 0-19-540497-1. CIP.
Children's poetry, Canadian (English).
2 / Ages 5-7
Reviewed by Maryleah Otto.
Volume 14 Number 3
The themes are favourites with children; monsters, Hallowe'en, robots, animals, circuses, and so on. Karen Patkau's illustrations, which comprise an interesting mix of collage, colour paintings, and black-and-white drawings, are imaginative and humourous. The book has a catchy cover and is beautifully printed on highgrade paper. The imprint is prestigious Unfortunately, all of these fortuitous qualities cannot save this collection of poems from missing the mark. Nor does a liberal dollop of Canadian flavour (Casa Loma, maple syrup, polar bears, etc.) make any difference.
Heidbreder, who has a background in classics and is a teacher in Vancouver fails to say anything memorable or even to say it in a memorable way. The style is simplistic, pedestrian, and uninspired. Metre and rhyme, when present, only add monotony to the expressions rather than being essential elements of the themes and moods of the poems. Example:
I'm a huge, gigantic bird,
I grab them by the hair,
A dinosaur in air.
I search for little children.
To grab them by the hair.
I fly them to my tree.
I gobble them all up,
Before they yell "Help me!"
I'm looking for you now.
For many years, we have encouraged the children who come to our library to write poetry. Some of the eight and nine year olds who have tried their hand at this form of artistic expression have produced material that is indistinguishable from the example above. Needless to say, these children are not published by Oxford, nor by anyone else. Although Heidbreder is to be commended for trying to see his subject matter from a child's point of view, he is at fault for failing to use the technical devices of his craft that could have made his writing reflect the skill of a poet, rather than that of a child groping awkwardly with language. A.A. Milne, for instance, could see the world through the eyes of a child, but he did not write like one. To do so is condescension, and children deserve better.
The weaknesses of this collection are seen too often in today's poetry for children. As a classicist, Heidbreder should realize that art, when it is true, can arouse an intellectual and an emotional response in children as well as adults, for art has a quintessential magic of its own that defies the mortal constraints of time and place.
When I was about six years old, my father used to read me to sleep on selections from Keats, Burns, Frost, Milne, Lear, Carroll, and Tennyson. I had no idea then what all those 'singing stories' (for music and poetry are close relatives) really were, nor did I care, but to this day I remember how much I loved them. Even now, fragments of them still come back to me, as stunning and enchanting as ever. It is sad to see a poet offering children bread and water when they need a feast.
You'll find me near some day.
I'll swoop right down and
SUDDENLY - I'll carry you away.
Maryleah Otto, Etobicoke P.L., Etobicoke, ON.