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Micro-Book Review: The Animal that Drank Up Sound

The Animal That Drank Up Sound
by William Stafford
Illustrated by Debra Frasier
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992
36 pages

It’s not often that I read a children’s book, and really have to slow down. By this I mean that many children’s books that I've read have easy, simple texts that are predictable enough to allow me to scan through quickly and understand the narrative just fine. But William Stafford’s The Animal That Drank up Sound is different. Maybe it’s because this book—like many of the children’s books that will soon be reviewed here on Wordplay—are written by poets. And, in turn, the phrasing is original, unexpected, and complex.

When the story opens, I’m struck with the driving force right away: “One day across the lake where echoes come now an animal that needed sound came down.” So I now know that there’s a mysterious animal that needs sound. And I think: okay, how is he going to get this sound? So I read on: “He drained the rustle from the leaves…and folded a quilt over the rocks…he buried--thousands of autumns deep--the noise that used to come there.” What I love about the language here are the verbs. This animal didn’t just “get” sound from doing x, y, and z, he drained and folded and buried the sound. How else did he retrieve sound? Like the title implies, he “began to drink the sound out of all the valleys—the croak of toads, and all the little shiny noises grass blades make.” The narrative plays with the sense of sound, and how one could potentially manipulate it. Stafford expanded my notion of sound and how I typically describe it. When talking about sound, I usually say: “I hear this sound…I hear that sound,” as I’d imagine most of us do. A poet, though, looks at sound differently. A poet challenges us to taste sound, to smell sound, to touch sound, and to see sound. And that’s exactly what Stafford does in this story.

This story—like many great children’s stories—isn’t afraid to get dark. This mysterious animal that drinks up sound, ends up starving. He starves because in winter, all of the sound froze, and he had nothing to eat. And in an even darker turn, the animal dies: “The moon saw its own animal dead on the snow, its dark absorbent paws and quiet muzzle and thick, velvet, deep fur.” And yet, even in the midst of death, this language is so beautifully and lyrically rendered.

It’s not until a brave, little cricket makes a chirp, “Cricket!” that the sound is restored back into the earth: “first whisperings, then moves in the grass and leaves: the water splashed, and a big night bird screamed.” The animal that drinks the sound becomes the antagonist, and the cricket, our little hero, is ready to bring sound and joy and color back into the world. And, by the end of the story, we see that the cricket remains on guard, just in case the animal comes back (or another one does) to try to drink up the sound again.

The story reads like a fable, like an old Native American origins tale: how sound came to be, how we almost lost it, and how it was restored back to the earth. After reading the book, it would be interesting to discuss the importance of sound in our lives, and pose some questions like: How does what we hear add to our experience of the world? What would it be like if there were no sound? What would it be like to be deaf? How do people who are deaf find other ways to experience sound? Making connections between the book, the students’ lives, and the lives of others will help readers look beyond the story, and experience the fable as a learning tool, a way to open their minds and eyes to the world outside themselves.

Allie Leach is the Education Programs Assistant at the Poetry Center

Created on: 
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Arizona Board of Regents