A popular children’s poet casts no spell when he recycles earlier material
The Wizard. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Brandon Dorman. HarperCollins/Greenwillow, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4–8.
By Janice Harayda
The Wizard is the only picture book that a bookstore clerk has ever tried to talk me out buying. I wish I had taken her advice.
You know that how critics say that there’s a curse of the Nobel that keeps writers from doing great work after they become laureates, which Gabriel García Marquez beat with Love in the Time of Cholera? Jack Prelutsky seems to suffer from a similar jinx. Two of his worst books have come out since the Poetry Foundation named him the children’s poet laureate of the U.S., a title unrelated to the honor conferred by the Library of Congress. Early in 2007 Prelutsky served up uninspired sports poems in Good Sports. Now there’s The Wizard, a picture book based on the time-honored literary principle that Maureen Dowd has described as: “Never sell once what you can sell twice.”
The Wizard consists of a brief rhyming poem about sorcery that first appeared in Prelutsky’s 1976 book, Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. A magician who might have been airlifted from Hogwarts to his gray stone tower in a suburbia turns a bullfrog into a flea and the flea in to mice. He then causes other transformations until he brings the frog back with a warning that departs from the iambic tetrameter used elsewhere: “Should you encounter a toad or lizard, / look closely … / it may be the work of the wizard.”
As those strained lines suggest, The Wizard is the kind of weak poem that works best in a collection that includes stronger ones. And it gets no help from the lurid, digitized pictures, long on a shrill lime green with silver glitter on the cover. “It’s so commercial,” protested the bookstore clerk who tried to talk me out of buying it. She was right: If the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders wore green and white instead of blue and white, they might choose the shades in this book.
There’s a place for honest commercialism in children’s literature – for, say good spin-offs television shows – but the illustrations for The Wizard are among the most pretentious I’ve seen in a picture book. Brandon Dorman scatters the pages with objects found in Dutch vanitas paintings — a skull, a clock, flickering candles. In art these are classic symbols of mortality and the flight of time. In this book they are just clichés.
Prelutsky has written many good books of children’s poetry, including Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, that don’t pander as this one does to the marketplace. But he may have little incentive to do more of them: The Wizard was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.
Best line / picture: None is a good as a typical line in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. But these two lines make clear that four-year-olds can understand iambic tetrameter: “He spies a bullfrog by the door / and, stooping, scoops it off the floor.”
Worst line / picture: The wizard has “a tangled beard that hangs from his skin.” But in nearly all of Dorman’s pictures, the beard is as smooth as satin.
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© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.