This marks the fiftieth post to appear on Buckeyemuse, so I wanted to write something a little different. Today I’m featuring some of the children’s books by the distinguished poet Elizabeth Spires, who was born in Lancaster, Ohio in 1952, grew up in Circleville, Ohio, and later attended Vassar College and Johns Hopkins University. She is a professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, a distinguished poet, and is married to the acclaimed novelist Madison Smart Bell. They have a grown daughter named Celia.
Many authors are versatile, capable of creating excellent work in different genres, and Elizabeth Spires is just such a writer. She is widely respected for her elegant collections of poetry, much of her work being deeply philosophical in nature and focused on issues of time, mortality, and family relationships, particularly those between parents and children.
But she also has a fun, playful side, and this is wonderfully demonstrated in her books for children. She has written eight of these, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to take a look at just a few, with the hope that readers will pursue her work for their own kids or other children in their lives, or just their own enjoyment—because I’ve found that children’s books are often enjoyed by adults as much as kids!
One of her children’s books is With One White Wing: Puzzles In Poems and Pictures, illustrated by Erik Blegvad and published by Margaret K. McElderry Books in 1995. This is a thirty-two page book featuring riddle poems, mostly rhyming, but some in free verse. Here’s an example:
“I weigh less than a feather
but you can’t pick me up.
I can dance but I can’t sing.
Without you, I am nothing.”
Any guesses? The correct answer is “shadow.” This book is a fun collection of riddles and charming illustrations.
The Big Meow, published by Candlewick Press in 2002, is the story of a feline named Little Cat who has an incredibly loud meow—so loud that the other little cats complain about the deafening roar of his meow. He asks his parents if they think his meow is too loud, but they think he is just fine. He is snubbed once again by his friends after demonstrating his powerful meow, but later his fierce feline roar saves both himself and other cats when threatened by a bullying bulldog (how’s that for some alliteration?). The book is delightfully illustrated by Cynthia Jabar.
One of Spires’s most acclaimed books for children is the witty The Mouse of Amherst, illustrated by Claire A. Nivola. This could be described as a book-length short story for older elementary students. Emmaline, a mouse, has moved into the home of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson. She becomes fascinated by the poetry the mysterious woman writes, and begins writing her own poems, which she leaves lying around for the author. Emily becomes friends with the mouse, and in turn shares verses with Emmaline and finds ways to protect her.
Emmaline also becomes familiar with the Dickinson family members, including Emily’s sister Lavinia, who suspects a mouse in the home, and also meets Dickinson’s friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who comes to the house to discuss Emily’s poetry and suggests she delay publication as it is so unconventional (and Emmaline manages, in her own way, to give a piece of her mind to Mr. Higginson! ). As the story progresses, efforts to find the mouse intensify, and taking strength from Emily’s poetry, Emmaline decides to go on her way and meet the world, secure in her faith in herself as mouse and poet.
The book is a pleasuret to read, and is impressive at a number of levels. One is simply the entertaining story, another is the manner in which Spires is able to introduce Dickinson’s poetry to children through this tale, and yet another is how she recreates Dickinson’s style through Emmaline’s own wonderful poems written from a mouse eye’s point of view. This is a sophisticated work that is still very approachable for children. Books for children don’t get much better than this.
Finally, Elizabeth Spires is also the author of an interesting collection of poems about the life and works of the American sculptor William Edmondson entitled I Heard God Talking To Me: William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2009. Born to former slaves near Nashville, Tennessee in 1874, Edmondson worked many different jobs throughout his life, including field hand, janitor, and railroad worker. From an early age Edmondson saw visions. Around 1931 Edmondson heard a voice telling him to pick up his tools and carve a tombstone. He did so, and continued to create tombstones which were sold to local families, and in turn began to carve statues and garden ornaments. Sidney Hirsch, a college professor–and a key player in forming the group of poets known as the Fugitives in the Nashville of the early 1920s–became fascinated by his work and brought other white customers to see his sculptures. Word of Edmondson’s compelling sculptures spread, eventually leading to an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in 1937. He died in 1951.
I Heard God Talking To Me was named a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. There are twenty-three poems total. Some are written in the voice of Edmondson; others are in the voices of his various creations, which range from the boxer Jack Johnson, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and Adam and Eve to simple animals named Rabbit, Talking Owl, and Old Turtle. “Nieces and Nephews” has Edmondson’s young relatives commenting on his work. Other poems contain the thoughts of sculptures representing everyday human beings: “Miss Louisa,” “Porch Ladies,” and “Girl Thinking.” The poems concerning sculptures are titled with the names of the different pieces. One exception is “A Tombstone Talks,” in which, similar to the poems in Edgar Lee Master’ Spoon River Anthology, a woman whose name is represented on the tombstone shares a story with the reader. The book includes striking photographs of both Edmondson and his sculptures.
I Heard God Talking To Me is a fascinating collection worthy of appreciation by both juvenile and adult readers. In addition to enjoying Elizabeth Spires give voice to both Edmondson and his creations, I also appreciated learning about this fascinating artist. I may do a separate piece here on Buckeyemuse on this volume alone, and will eventually, over time, take a look at other works by Elizabeth Spires.
These are not the only works for children by this gifted writer. Other such books include three published in 1981: The Falling Star, Count With Me, and The Wheels Go Round, all published by C.E. Merrill out of Columbus, Ohio. There is another riddle collection in collaboration with Eric Blegvad, also published by Margaret McElderry Books: Riddle Road: Puzzles in Poems and Pictures (1999). I Am Arachne, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2001.
Here’s hoping she writes more for children in the years to come.
With One White Wing: Puzzles In Poems and Pictures. Margaret K. McElderberry Books. New York City, 1995.
The Big Meow. Candlewick Press. Cambridge, MA., 2002.
The Mouse of Amherst. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York City, 1999.
I Heard God Talking To Me: William Edmondson and His Stone Carvings. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York City, 2009.
Poetry Foundation and Wikipedia articles on Elizabeth Spires.