Don't You Remember?
Don't You Remember?: Children's Books by Poets
December 8, 2008 - February 15, 2009
From nonsense to nursery rhymes, children’s books have introduced generations of children to both the pleasure of reading and the power of poetry. For poets the writing of children’s books provides much the same—a way of both recognizing young readers and honoring the initial appeal of words and images, the very backbone of poetry.
Children’s books written by poets provide a fascinating and fittingly growing part of the strong holdings in poetry at Emory, especially as part of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library and the broader Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. Witness the inaugural item in this exhibition, a copy of the Struwwelpeter or “Slovenly Peter”—a formative children’s book owned by W.H. Auden when he was a child. Or consider another English version, seen here, translated from the German by Mark Twain. Or take the earliest book in this exhibition by Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (1907), arguably the most famous children’s book of the modern era.
As with the iconic Alice, the best children’s books and characters appeal to both adults and the children they read to. At times, it even can be hard to distinguish between adult and children’s poetry. Poets Theodore Roethke, Ted Hughes, and Richard Wilbur, to name a few, regularly wrote poems for children they later would include in their collected poems. Even Sylvia Plath published a book for young people, albeit only posthumously.
Perhaps the most famous book of children’s poetry by a noted poet is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by Nobel Prize–winner T.S. Eliot, which later went on to become Cats, one of the longest-running shows on Broadway. With Eliot, as with Lewis Carroll, children’s verse provides a chance to explore alternate identities, as well as play with light verse—a form that until recently was practiced by most poets—often to say serious things.
The history of children’s books is also the history of race in America and abroad. From children’s versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to more troubling images of people of color, the 19th and early 20th century was filled with stereotypical images that authors sought to combat with their own writing. Floyd’s Flowers (1905), the earliest African American children’s book, seen here, is filled with verse and prose addressed to young African American readers, including a passage that could symbolize children’s books as a whole:
The best books for a child are the books that widen his world. A man or woman in middle life or old age who loves poetry and great pictures and statues, who is familiar with Shakespeare, who has a sense of humor and a love of nature, knows a deal about the joy of living and is full of resources. No one can ever have these resources and that joy who has not had them from early childhood.
In this exhibition one can see a rough outline of the modern era through the children’s books of its most acclaimed poets. From Langston Hughes’s “First Books” explaining jazz, Africa, and even rhythm to children, to the children’s publication Highlights, award-winning poet Lucille Clifton’s earliest appearance in print, children’s books by poets provide an insight into the origins of poetry and a primer on poetry’s many pleasures.
Atticus Haygood Professor of English
Curator, Raymond Danowski Poetry Library