I’ve no beef with Edward Lear, but I’ve no particular love of him either. Best known for his sweet nonsense poems, Lear often comes off as a slightly less interesting Lewis Carroll when discussed in contemporary society. There is one poem of his, however, that I’ve always had a sweet spot for. “The Owl and the Pussycat” was one of my favorites as a child. I was a romantically inclined tot from day one, and to me the story of a love between two such different creatures was fascinating. Love poems are difficult as it is, and love poems that kids would actually like to read are almost impossible to locate. Now, thanks to KCP Poetry’s fabulous Visions in Poetry series, we have a picture book version of “The Owl and the Pussycat” that is smart and sweet and truly beautiful to behold. Obviously you should have an original version of this story with Lear’s own illustrations in your library. If, however, you’ve a yen for something one-of-a-kind and stunning (with a social message of vast importance, no less) look no further than here.
You probably know the poem in its original form. An owl and a pussycat are in love. They sail away, find a pig, get married, and live happily ever after. Straightforward tale, no? No. Under the hand of illustrator Stephane Jorisch, Lear’s poem takes on layers of significance that perhaps even he couldn’t have predicted. In this tale the pussycat is a bohemian beauty, prone to eclectic clothing and thick-soled boots. The owl, for his part, is undoubtedly a businessman but the two strike up a touching romance. Unfortunately all around them the tongues wag. Animals stick strictly to their own kind and the lovers flee in a boat to “the land where the bong-tree grows”. Here they find a far more open society, where people of every conceivable mix of animal happily converge and talk over tea. The piggy-wig, a Blake-like kind of character, presides over all and the wedding of the happy pair comes via a turkey (holding, I might add, a copy of Darwin’s, “The Origin Of Species” for kicks). The ending is all feasting and dancing with a brilliant blue moon shining above.
The “Visions in Poetry” series consistently produces high-quality interpretations of classic poems with the aid of some of the best illustrators working in the field today. For example, there was the inner city take on Casey at the Bat as interpreted by the artist Joe Morse. That book was not only original, but also the new look it sported melded perfectly with the words. In the case of “The Owl and the Pussycat” the pictures here are by one Stephane Jorisch and we’ve a very similar case of seamless originality. Mr. Jorisch isn’t entirely unknown to me. I remember seeing his work on the picture book, Oma’s Quilt by Paulette Bourgeois some years back. But while “Oma” was perfectly nice, you would never have gotten a sense that the illustrator was capable of merging, “Fellini, the art of Miro and The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine” as is found here. This isn’t Jorisch’s first work with KCP Poetry, mind you. As I recall he did a rather inventive Jabberwocky some time ago as well. Who else would give Carroll’s work a futuristic bent? There’s real heart to his take on Lear’s poem, though. I don’t know if this was his interpretation or that of KCP Press, but to make this story a tale of love across mores and uptight morals is perfect for this day and age. You look at this story and see you creatures that might be considered abominations against nature, like unicorns and mermaids, in a warm and open society… well that just has all kinds of implications for us today, does it not? If someone comes up to me asking for gay-friendly literature, I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to hand them this book for kicks. It is, after all, a book of love in the purest sense.
Half the fun of the Visions in Poetry series is reading the Afterwards. The piece on Edward Lear speculates that perhaps there’s an “undercurrent of melancholy” to his poems that critique the repressiveness of English society of his time. A repressiveness just ripe for Jorisch’s pencil, ink, and watercolors. Consider too that in Canada, Jorisch is their David Wiesner. He’s won the Governor General’s Award for Illustration (their version of the Caldecott) three times already. Give this book a gander and you’ll see why. Not only is it a joy to page through, but I loved the little details as well. The pussycat carries around a folder of what might well be her art while the owl sports a briefcase. Both owl and pussycat carry masks of their own faces before they leave in their boat and I love that once they relax in the presence of the pig, the owl opens the collar of his shirt and the pussycat removes her heavy black boots.
For the children of my generation, perhaps “The Owl and the Pussycat” will conjure up the owl and kitty characters on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (think about it). The nice thing about Jorisch’s interpretation of the story is that it presents that killer combination of the kid-friendly with the adult-friendly. Children will enjoy the story (how could they not when there are friggin’ MERMAIDS in it?) and the irony-laden sophisticates amongst us will display it prominently on their coffee tables. Under normal circumstances I dislike children’s books that play to an adult audience, but this book will appeal to both age groups without difficulty. This Valentine’s Day, give the kiddies some romantic poetry with a bit of a kick to it. Read this version of “The Owl and the Pussycat” alongside Russell Hoban’s remarkable picture book, The Marzipan Pig, and you’ll have an excellent combination of love, both requited and un, to present to the masses.
MISC: More info on Mr. Jorisch may be found here (though it isn’t much).