Saturday, July 30, 2011

Kid lit -- a Saturday reprise

We live in an age of information. Too much information can swamp the boat of wonder, especially for a child.

From a science book we might learn that a flying bat might snap up 15 insects per minute, or that the frequency of its squeal can range as high as 50,000 cycles per second. Useful information, yes.

But consider the information in this poem from Randall Jarrell's "The Bat Poet":
A bat is born
Naked and blind and pale.
His mother makes a pocket of her tail
And catches him. He clings to her long fur
By his thumbs and toes and teeth.
And then the mother dances through the night
Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting--
Her baby hangs on underneath.
What wondrous information! Even the rhythm of the poem ("naked and blind and pale"; "thumbs and toes and teeth") mimics the flight of mother and child, doubling and looping in the night.

The mother eats the moths and gnats she catches
In full flight; in full flight
The mother drinks the water of the pond
She skims across. Her baby hangs on tight.
That wonderful line -- "In full flight; in full flight" -- conveys the single most important fact about bats: their extraordinary aviator skills. Jarrell's repeated phrase conveys useful facts about chiropteran dining; it also lets the child feel in her bones what it is to be a bat. This is information that enhances wonder.

In Jarrell's book, the Bat-Poet recites his poem about bats to a chipmunk. Afterwards, he asks, "Did you like the poem?" The chipmunk replies, "Oh, of course. Except I forgot it was a poem. I just kept thinking how queer it must be to be a bat." The Bat-Poet says, "No, it's not queer. It's wonderful."

(This post originally appeared in June 2006.)