Poems to Read to the Very Young Proto-New Yorkers

Poems to Read to the Very Young  When I was quite young my family had a copy of this book Poems to Read to the Very Young, where the poems were selected by Josette Frank and the timeless illustrations provided by Eloise Wilkin.  I loved it.  I often demanded that poems from it be read to me.  I poured over the sweet, idyllic illustrations.  When I was seven or eight our copy of the book was destroyed by my grandma’s dog.  For two decades I’ve looked for a replacement at used book shops and garage sales –  the book itself is many decades out of print.  I found this copy in a local Mennonite “Book Shed.”  When I bought it I had tears welling up in my eyes.  

Bird Talk – Aileen Fisher

“Think…” said the robin,

“Think…” said the jay,

Sitting in the garden,

Talking one day.

“Think about the people-

the way they grow:

they don’t have feathers

at all, you know.

“They don’t eat beetles,

they don’t grow wings,

they don’t like sitting

on wires and things.

“Think!” said the robin.

“Think!” said the jay.

“Aren’t people funny

to be that way?”

That was the first poem I ever memorized.  I knew it by heart before I could read.  I like to think that in that humorous poem are the seeds of learning to love literature and poetry, to accept other people who are different from me and mine own, and of course – bird watching.

Looking through Poems I’ve felt that much of the book was weirdly prescient for my adult life.  In this illustration there is what appears to be a Johnnie chair, just on the child’s right.IMG_0570 For non-Johnnie readers here’s the Johnnie chair I mean:

(Doesn’t this picture just make you hungry for bagels, pasta and marinara sauce, and rum raisin ice cream eaten with a fork?)

Once  I had a chance to look through Poems as an adult I noticed that the landscape and architecture of the illustrations seemed oddly familiar too.  It didn’t match up to the city and suburbs that I grew up in, which had their heyday in the early and mid twentieth century.  These scenes were notably more pastoral and definitely older.  Many of the homes depicted were the big, wooden farmhouses that are now my neighbors here in the Finger Lakes.  There are picture windows, big porches, wooden floors – all of which is clearly evident in the housing stock in the little towns and neighborhoods all throughout upstate.  The landscapes matched this area too – lots of depictions of children in cold weather with bare trees in the background, soft rolling forests, seagulls shown in pictures without the sea.   This was the picture that made me stop and decide to find out where exactly Eloise Wilkins was from.  Because this picture isn’t just kind of similar to upstate, it’s like some beautiful childlike encapsulation of it.IMG_0571 A quick google reveals that indeed, Eloise Wilkins is from Rochester, NY.  I find this makes Poems even dearer to me now.  As a child I learned to love and cherish the land that I would one day come to live in.  I didn’t grow up here in upstate, I didn’t have my formative years spent down in this dirt or listening to this wind or tumbling over this grass.  But I do have the next best thing: these perfect, distilled images of childhood strung like pearls in my heart that I can always return to when I feel the need to really belong to this land.

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