I’ve been thinking a lot lately about whom children’s books are really for. Kids, obviously. And parents that will have to (hopefully, potentially) read those books over and over again. Children’s books are flexible objects, though. Their stated audience is in the 0-12 age range, but recently you’ve been seeing them used for other purposes. Graduates from high school get inspirational picture books to send them on their way. Psychiatrists keep picture books around for their patients, using them to work through various worries and anxieties. Adults gift them to one other because there’s something about the simplicity of a children’s book that can be infinitely comforting. So when we pick up a little book of poems like those in God Got a Dog we start by wondering who the intended audience is. Kids? Teens? Adults? The spiritual? The agnostic? After reading it through several times, I think my answer is, “Everybody”. The God in this book is everything from a nine-year-old girl to a broken man on a swing. If He can be anyone then this book is for everyone.
In this book you will find sixteen poems culled from author Cynthia Rylant’s 2003 YA title God Went to Beauty School and illustrated by the inestimable genius of Marla Frazee. Each poem relates a small attempt on God’s part to do something human. Sometimes he is successful (he opens a nail salon, goes skating, and finds God, which is a bit confusing for Him). Sometimes he is a bit dejected (He catches a cold, gets arrested, and gets a desk job that She (the gender shifts abound) only gets through because She eats thirty-seven Snickers bars). We see God’s highs and lows and He’s this infinitely relatable, great person. The final poem is “God got a dog” which ends with, “. . . She saw this dog and She felt bad so She took it on home and named it Ernie and now God . . .” a turn of the page, “has somebody keeping Her feet warm at night.”
You say the name “Cynthia Rylant” and you work in some capacity with children’s literature then you might conjure up any number of titles she’s written for kids over the years. Everything from the Henry and Mudge series to Cat Heaven to Poppleton and his friends, and on and on and on. What you may not immediately remember is her foray into the world of young adult literature. Normally when children’s authors write YA books they release realistic novels about kids very much like themselves breaking up, growing up, and generally facing the unfairness of the world. Rylant took a different tactic. She decided to write about God. It’s funny, but at its core the book was just as teen as anything by her kidlit fellows. But while those other teen characters were trying to figure out who they were, God is trying to figure out how our world works. He’s pretty clear on Himself. Except when it comes to body image. He’s still working on that.
The book does not include all the poems from the original collection. Just a small sampling really. I tried reading them to see if there was something infinitely more kid-friendly about these particular poems and was stumped. I think Rylant chose the ones in this book not because they would speak more to the prepubescent set but because they were the best ones from the previous book. Still and all the choice of which to use must have been fascinating. The order of the poems is also interesting, particularly when you consider that the titular poem is also the last one in the book. Mind you, it ends everything on a particularly hopeful note (I think the previous book ended with God getting killed), so you really wouldn’t have it any other way. For my part, I found myself doing something with this book that I didn’t remember doing with God Went to Beauty School. As I read I found myself wanting to learn the rules of this God. How do Jesus and Gabriel and Mother Teresa all fit into it? What does a disguise mean to him? Rylant just gives us the barest of outlines, but I already predict that a savvy young reader somewhere will work out all the tips and tricks and rules and ideas at work here. Things that Rylant never thought of. Things that can be extrapolated from the text.
And so we return to the age-old debate of audience. One of my children’s librarians recently commented to me that she will definitely be buying copies of this for her relatives come the Christmas season. Is this book then destined to be a thoughtful gift from one adult to another? Is it a graduation book to be given to high school seniors so that they can think about The Big Picture without having to get too “big”? Or is it actually for children after all? Kids raise questions about things that they don’t understand. It’s what they do and how they learn, so what better than to give them a book that feeds into that? Certainly the book is rife with adult jokes (God tells a doctor at one point that “you’re pretty good at playing me.” There are mentions of Jesus and circumcision and mourning. The best thing to say is that the book is for all ages, beginning with childhood. It’s for the kid who wants to think about God in a fashion not found in most titles for kids. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to come up with a children’s book that comes even a bit close to what Rylant and Frazee are doing here and I’m stumped. This is a book that trusts in the intelligence of its child readers, even as it attracts adults.
Here’s how old I am. I remembered reading God Went to Beauty School back in 2004 but I wasn’t sure if I’d reviewed it. So I headed over to Amazon to see and there, lo and behold, was my review. In it I wrote the following about the poems themselves, which I’ll stand by. To quote: “I have heard that Bible study groups use the poems to study. That groups of people without religion will ponder the poems line by line . . . I have heard that people have read the book at funerals. That it encompasses something in all of us, touching us deeply, revealing the truth that everything changes from one thing into another. The book is small and it does not impose itself upon you. It invites you to read it and whether you love it or hate it, it will not attempt to convert you one way or another. It is a book to love.” One thing I wish I’d mentioned at the time is Rylant’s humor. The poems are doggone funny at times. Like in “God caught a cold” when it says, “It’s hard to be authoritative with a cold. It’s hard to thunder ‘THOU SHALT NOT!” when it comes out “THOU SHALT DOT!” That’s just good plain writing. In my original review I also mention that my favorite poem was “God went to India”. I’m sticking by that, and they really know how to use it in the new collection. It’s the most serious of the poems, and the saddest.
One change made from the original God Went to Beauty School to God Got a Dog is the personification of God as one gender or another. In the original book God was a He from start to finish. In this one, God has been broken into Hes and Shes, partly for the benefit of Ms. Marla Frazee, the illustrator. In terms of the art in this book, this collection could not have happened without her. I can’t imagine a single artist out there quite as capable as she to capture each poem to such a heightened sense of detail.
Part of the lure of the images here come from the fact that Ms. Frazee fills her pictures with loads of tiny details. A dead plant in “God got a desk job”. Stacked beer cans in “God got cable”. And since she makes each appearance of God a different race, gender, and age, the order of the people is interesting. The very first God you see is a middle aged guy with a receding hairline in red plaid pajamas sitting in a chair, coffee cup in hand. You look at it and assume that he’s going to be your hero for the rest of the book, but turn the page and there you’ll find that God now looks Samoan with a lovely tattoo on his right arm and a pair of Bermuda shorts. The amazing thing is that in spite of the changes to the God’s body, you never for one moment assume that this is a book about a bunch of different Gods. Clearly it’s the same guy, and I think kids are capable of picking up on that.
If I got to choose my favorite picture in the book it would be the image that accompanies “God wrote a book” in which God writes a book for a little boy and reads it to him because he couldn’t sleep. The God in this particular poem is a woman in her late 40s, early 50s, wearing a loose comfortable yellow shirt, green leggings, and lots of rings and bracelets. There are glasses too. She’s reading with an arm around the boy and her legs are angled sidewise in a rather pretty fashion. Sensible red and white striped shoes are on the ground. She looks like someone’s aunt or librarian. If someone were to read me a story at night, I’d want it to be her. There is also an old-timey crown the kids used to wear in the 1940s hanging off of a chair. I adore those things. Gotta love the details.
One vaguely wonders if some will consider the book irreligious, and considering that you have God worrying about things and doubting things, that answer is going to be yes. Of course. But I consider it akin to something on par with Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s interesting, maybe saying more about the human condition and our own relationship to God than God Him/Herself. Or maybe it’s a way of humanizing something that feels distant for some people. For kids, it makes God relatable and infinitely likable. And while I think it’s appropriate for children, I certainly don’t think this book is solely for them. This is a title for all ages and all comers. Get it while it’s hot people. Get it while it’s hot.
On shelves October 29th
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
- Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce
- Big Momma Makes the World by Phyllis Root
Misc: Steps and Staircases has your Poetry Friday round-up today. Head on over there to check it out!