A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers holds the unique distinction of winning a Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor. The Caldecott Honor is well-earned—Alice and Martin Provensen have done an admirable job paying homage to the illustrations of William Blake without slavishly imitating them.
The Newbery Medal is a little more surprising. Nancy Willard writes a series of poems about a fantastical inn owned and operated by William Blake himself, and inhabited and staffed by oddball characters and creatures. She's clearly been influenced by Blake's poetry, and ably recreates his sing-songy meter, but her subject matter has little to do with his.
In Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, the poet presents a series of poems that reflect the joy and horror of life, or "the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul." Many have observed that there's a measure of darkness in the Songs of Innocence as well as the Songs of Experience, and this is probably best shown by the two poems both named "The Chimney Sweeper."
The first poem by that name is about a young chimney sweeper who maintains a degree of optimism after having a vision of heaven and God the Father. But there are also references to the fact that chimney sweepers were usually sold by their parents, that their life was one of misery, and that beatings would surely come to those whose service was less than satisfactory. The second poem deals with similar themes, but from a much less optimistic perspective.
Probably the most famous of Blake's poems is "The Tyger," which is essentially a reflection on theodicy (how can a good God and evil coexist? does God create evil?). It comes in the Songs of Experience section, and is weighty and dark. However, Willard begins A Visit to William Blake's Inn with a quote from "The Tyger," and proceeds to offer several lighthearted nonsense poems.
Willard's fifteen poems follow a young child during a visit to the inn, and chronicle his adventures with the Man in the Marmalade Hat, a Rabbit, a Tiger, a Cat, and more. The content of the poems is magical and fantastical, but it isn't particularly reminiscent of any of Blake's poems. Neither is the character of Blake much like the tortured individual responsible for some of the world's great poetry and illustration.
The Man in the Marmalade Hat leads the inhabitants in a dance, Blake leads them across the Milky Way and tells the tiger a bedtime story, and more. There's a feeling of mystery and unspoken magic on each page, brought even more to life by the Provensens's colorful illustrations. Everything is awe-inspiring and wonderful.
But none of it is particularly Blake-esque. The poems also have a tendency toward obscurity, making them not quite appropriate for young readers, and yet not quite mature enough for older readers. It's a bit like Alice in Wonderland meets 2001: A Space Odyssey, except without a single coherent plotline or a homicidal computer.
The pictures are worth the price of the book, and the poems aren't bad but they're also not must-reads. They don't really shed light on Blake's work, and they don't always read as smoothly as they should. If you want some great nonsense poetry for your kids, have them read Lewis Carroll; if you just want to give them great poetry, give them William Blake.
<span class="body_italic" lic;="" line-height:="" 20px;"="">Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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