of the Center for Children's Books:
|Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books..
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Douglas Florian has been producing welcome additions to children's literature for awhile, but his career during the last decade or so has marked him as one of the most memorable contemporary versifiers for young readers.
He evinces a wit, both with wordplay and conceptual diversion, that link him with some historic names. "Just when you think you know the boa,/ There's moa and moa and moa and moa" ("The Boa," beast feast) evokes the spirit of Ogden Nash; his anarchic humor about catastrophic fates (Bing Bang Boing is full of rusted knights, monster-eaten aunts, and dead victims of mad magicians) recalls the hapless protagonists of Edward Lear's limericks, who often ended up far worse than they started. There's also some deft wrangling of consonants and conceits together ("Did you know the ocean's oysters/ Sometimes change from girls to boysters?"--"The Oysters," In the Swim) that results in a concentrated--and in this case, zoologically accurate--cleverness. The bouncing-ball rhythms of his lines give them a projective flavor that makes them very satisfying as readalouds or recitations (and there's often a zesty seasoning of insult to make them all the more enjoyable), and his taste for punny poetic punchlines means that verses often end with a gratifying flourish (the manatee "eats so much that it may seem/ At times to be a manateam," "The Manatee," In the Swim).
Yet he's also lyrical, even in his humorous poetry. There's fresh imagery as well as playfulness in the egret who "gave the beach/ a feathered hat" ("The Egret," On the Wing). In his new book Winter Eyes, this lyricism ranges across the snowy landscape "Winter has to pick and choose./ The clothes she wears/ Are few in hues"---"Winter Hues"), sometimes taking a detour through typography that results in what one might term semi-concrete poetry, wherein the lyric's physical shape enhances the poem if not literally representing its subject. Nor does he wax poetic beyond his young readers' grasp: he's not averse to the effect of complication, but his verses are eminently approachable and grounded in the familiar.
Florian also has an advantage over many children's poets in being himself an artist; his illustrations and poetry work together in comradely pairing. In Bing Bang Boing and Laugh-eteria this means thick black line drawings of offbeat figures, heightening his debt to Lear and looking as if the author of The Book of Nonsense had gotten ahold of a thick Magic Marker; there's also some of the naive inquiry of Stevie Smith's sketches for her own poetry. In the bestiary titles he takes a different approach: deep-hued watercolors gain texture from scratchy brushstrokes on rough paper but also soften with blurred and feathery edges, all set off by a freehand frame in a complementary color (in Insectlopedia, Florian tosses collage into these otherwordly windows, giving his multileggers something to crawl on). These images often engage in some creative but poker-faced literal interpretation of the worlds, allowing saddled and bridled sea horses to swim around a race track, the hawk to perch on a high limb with binoculars dangling from its neck, and the firefly dangles an electrical cord from its luminous behind. Yet in Winter Eyes he works effectively with more traditional landscapes and winter components, enriching winter light not just with the traditional blue but with startling and evocative touches of pink and rust.
While it's never possible to have too much good poetry, children's literature is particularly blessed with a fullness in this area. Douglas Florian is one of those blessings.
--Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor
This page was last updated on September 1, 1999.