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The Owl and the Pussycat
by Edward Lear
Illustrated by Jan Brett
Growing up, I had an illustrated book of poetry for children, the illustrations of which were pretty lousy, but the poetry of which was pretty great. “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Edward Lear’s nonsense poem, was one of my favorite selections. So I was super-stoked to find the poem in board book form, meticulously illustrated by Jan Brett, when my son was about five months old.
He’s always been opinionated about books (screaming and batting away the ones he deems unacceptable), and I’ll be honest: he was indifferent to “The Owl and the Pussycat” at first. But he clearly didn’t hate it, so I kept at it, and eventually he succumbed to its charms, which are many.
The lush romanticism of it kills me. The Owl is an elegant fowl; he looks up to the stars above and sings to his small guitar (imagine poor Pussy’s discomfort if he creepily stared into her eyes while he sang about her) (though even with his discreet technique, after a year and a day, I’d be ready to abandon ship). The Pussycat is a decisive lady: O! let us be married, too long have we tarried.
While its rhythm, its rhyme, and its pleasingly weird language (the bong-tree, the piggy-wig, the runcible spoon) combine to make it a satisfying recitation to a young audience, the real clincher is the poem’s brevity. Even as recently as eight or nine months old, my son would sit through reasonably long hardcover children’s books, but now, at just over a year old, he’s so enamored with his own mobility that he can’t be bothered to stay still for long. And did I mention our edition is a board book? He’s really keen to crumple pages and tear things up, so board books are a must for us.
I’ve saved one of the best things for last. Jan Brett’s illustrations are charming and lovely and very, very thoughtful. She’s set the story in Martinique, where she’s spent some time. Details such as the fold of the Pussycat’s headscarf (one point up to indicate she’s single, before she and the Owl marry) and the design of the Owl’s pea-green boat are true to the culture, as illustrated in these notes about the book on her website. My mom, who just retired from teaching third grade, contacted Jan Brett once and Brett sent her several small posters for her classroom. So in addition to being a captivating illustrator, she’s a stand-up lady.
A few weeks ago, my son went from pulling all the books off his shelves and scattering them on the floor to crawling over with the ones he wants me to read to him. That “The Owl and the Pussycat” has been among his selections has been really satisfying, and I never get tired of reading it to him.
Liz Warren-Pederson is a writer based in Tucson. She blogs irregularly at girlofthewest.wordpress.com.