Saturday, September 30, 2006

Forgotten Bookshelf: City Poems by Lois Lenski
I once thought I knew something about Lois Lenski, back when all I head read were her still-in-print books – happy little picture books about the seasons and things that go. Then I chanced upon City Poems, and whoa – the genesis of the New Realism movement. Who knew that back in 1954 there was a woman putting poems about street gangs and homelessness next to poems about birthdays and friendly policemen? For a moment, I thought I was re-reading The Inner City Mother Goose.

City Poems comprises a big bundle of verses inspired by Lenski’s life in New York City during the 1950s. Lenski was one of the first children’s poets to put what the introduction calls “honest realism” into her work. Most of the poems are clever little bits of rhyme about the kind of things you usually see in children’s poetry: snow days, making friends, The People in Your Neighborhood, and “Bus Stop”:

Bus stops at the corner,

Just stand right there and wait,

Here it comes, door opens,

Hop in and don’t be late.

Hop in, hop out!

Hear the driver shout.

There’s room for more

Don’t block the door,

Hop in, hop out!

It’s mostly sweet, gentle stuff with a bit of rhythm thrown in for fun – any of them could easily be adapted as a picture book (hint-hint, would-be illustrators out there). But then you stumble along a poem like “Slum Home”:

Faucet’s leaking,

Sink won’t drain;

Somebody broke

The windowpane.

Stuff a rag in

To keep out the rain.

No heat in the pipes,

The roaches play,

Chair’s broke down,

It rains all day.

Where’s my Mom?

She’s gone away.

The overall idea, I guess, is that Lenski is trying to give a loving-but-true image of the city she loves. The odd thing for me, I suppose, is that I don’t seem to see too many books for this age group – this books seems to be written for the 7-and-younger crowd – that deals with this kind of harsh reality. There’s plenty of this kind of stuff for older kids, but little-littles? Not really. (Unless you’re one of those people who considers Smoky Night appropriate for preschoolers, which I don’t.) Also, the rhymes’ sing-songy quality makes a few of the serious-subject-matter poems kind of silly. But some of them still manage to be touching. Anyway, the book is a touch dated (there’s a poem about an automat and another about an elevator boy) but it’s worth taking a look at, especially if you’re already a Lenski fan. Ooooh, and did I mention the always-excellent line illustrations? Here’s a sampling:

Love it. Oh, and please forgive the lousy cover image this time. That book was darn difficult to photograph!


annulla said...

I grew up with that book and remember it fondly. One piece of good news -- the automat is back! I haven't yet made it to the new automat, but I will, I will.

Anonymous said...

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