A Little Bitty Man and Other Poems for the Very Young
By Halfdan Rasmussen
Translated by Marilyn Nelson and Pamela Espeland
Illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
On shelves now.
Denmark! Mention the country and children’s literature in one breath and what would most Americans think of? Well, if they were well-versed in the form they might think of Hans Christian Andersen. Our national interest in children’s authors from other countries is sparse, but once in a while someone pierces the collective unconscious. Unfortunately for us, Danish children’s literature begins and ends with the esteemed Andersen. For all we know, that country’s interest in kids’ fare began and ended with his reign. So it was with great interest that I became acquainted with one Halfdan Rasmussen. Former resistance fighter against the German occupation, human rights advocate, and children’s poet, the man wore many a hat in his day. Having already been introduced to U.S. kids in the previous publication The Ladder, Rasmussen returns to our public eye with a collection of younger fare. Sweet and jaunty by turns, A Little Bitty Man exhibits all the best aspects of classic children’s poetry. You may have never known this Rasmussen fellow before but after reading this you’ll be happy to make his acquaintance.
Thirteen poems of relative brevity are collected together. Ranging from the realistic to the fantastical, Rasmussen dares to spark young imaginations with this collection. In it you’ll encounter an elf with a singular method of retaining warmth in a chilly proboscis, a dolly with latrophobia, incontinent rainclouds, clever goats, literary fowl, and many more. Accompanied by the delicate, charming illustrations of Kevin Hawkes, this is one poetic introduction you’ll be happy to have made.
I can’t think of the last time a funny poem for kids made me laugh out loud. So imagine my surprise when I found myself reading the poem “You Can Pat My Pet” and ran across these two stanzas: “You can pat my dog for a dime / and my horse for an egg and a half. / You can pat my favorite aunt / if you give me your granddad’s moustache.” It proceeds to get sillier after that but I just love the exchange of aunt patting for facial hair. Rasmussen does not choose to be a funny poet for kids or a meaningful one. He’s both at once. For the most part, when Rasmussen is trying to be insightful, he succeeds. “What Comes Next” is lovely. “What Things Are For” feels like a natural companion to the picture book A Hole Is to Dig by Ruth Krauss. The sole fly in the ointment is “Those Fierce Grown-Up Soldiers” which is the kind of poem we’ve seen done a hundred times before, and never particularly well. You remember Shel Silverstein‘s “Hug-o-War”? This is pretty much the same thing. Illustrator Hawkes does what he can with it, but it can’t help being the weakest of the lot.
The poems in this collection are also described in the title as being for the “very young”. That’s a bit difficult to determine, of course. A toddler probably isn’t going to get much out of them. For the discerning four-year-old, however, the length of these poems is perfect. None last too long and many of them feel like forgotten classic nursery rhymes that somehow escaped the public’s notice until now. The poem about the “Days”, for example, feels like a sequel to the nursery rhyme about “Monday’s Child”. No mean feat.
Of course, it’s hard to know how much credit to hand a translator of a work of fiction, particularly when you’re dealing with poetry. Children’s poetry, at least, deals to a large extent with what you can see and understand. The theoretical or metaphorical is left for older readers. Still, Nelson and Espeland have the unenviable task of taking Danish words and making them not only make sense but rhyme as well. I’d love to hear them speak on the topic, discussing which ones were particularly simple and which ones hard. Were there poems they had to reject outright? How did they choose which ones to include? After all, this isn’t a book that was previously published in another country. This is an original collection curated by two Americans with a personal connection to the author. Ms. Nelson, the bookflap explains, was granted “express permission” to publish English versions of Mr. Rasmussen’s poems before he died. We’re lucky he did.
Even if I hadn’t known that Halfdan Rasmussen (was there ever a better name?) wasn’t of the English speaking world, I probably could have figured out that this was a translation. The giveaway? The release of bodily fluids. Let’s face it, Americans are squeamish about our bathroom use. At least, we’re squeamish when it comes to our children’s literature (adult sitcoms and movies clearly get a pass). And even when Americans do include bodily functions it tends to be restricted to farts. A Little Bitty Man includes two poems that mention numbers one and two in passing, though they are by no means gratuitous. Just the same, either American poets don’t think to mention such things (you would have though you could count on Shel Silverstein, but no go) or they’re edited out before publication. Funny.
Strange as it may sound, I’ve never personally seen a Kevin Hawkes book that included little spot illustrations. I’m pretty sure he’s done them before, though I’d be hard pressed to say when. In any case, he’s a natural fit for Rasmussen’s poems. Thanks to his interstitial art the spirits of Tasha Tudor or Erik Blegvad (I loved his work on Zolotow’s Seasons) are invoked. My favorite poem in this collection, “What Comes Next”, is in large part because of the pictures Hawkes chooses to include. His children in these poems are also nicely multicultural, which I enjoyed.
When you consider how little appreciation American children’s poets receive in their own country (there is no American Library Association award for poetry for kids) it’s little wonder that our understanding of international children’s poets is a bit lacking. And even when they are translated, many’s the time when those books have a herky jerky quality to their writing. In contrast, if you handed A Little Bitty Man to someone without explanation it’s highly unlikely that they’d realize they were even dealing with a translated text (urination poems aside). Great poems, lovely art, and an overall composition that feels “classic” in nature, this is a book worth seeking out, sharing, and treasuring. It has the ability to please not just the kids of the 21st century but the 20th and 22nd as well. A big thank you to Marilyn Nelson then. We appreciate knowing now what we couldn’t have known before.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Misc: Don’t forget that it’s Poetry Friday, everyone! Stop on by Karen Edmisten to see this week’s round-up.