Spring Arbor, MI
(Editor’s note: Like any real front porch, FPR seeks to be a place where children are valued and welcome. Much of what we do seeks the seriousness of a child at play. This is, to my knowledge, the first piece we’ve published where the prominent voice is a young child. I am confident readers will find it as charming, and as worthy of being of being part of a conversation on a porch, as I did.)
Berry, Wendell. Terrapin. Illustrated by Tom Pohrt. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2014. $25.
Children are often our most honest and astute critics—whether we want them to be or not. They have an uncanny ability to sense our needs, to reduce our imagined complexities into the simplicities they actually are, to encourage us that life is good, and to remind us that there is beauty in recovering a childlike vision for the world. The brightness of such a childlike vision cuts through the shadow of our adult familiarity, inviting us to see the world as it could be, not merely as it is.
We can be thankful that in 1936 Stanley Unwin had the foresight to trust children as shrewd readers and judges of children’s books, employing his ten-year-old son, Rayner, to read and compose a report on J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Rayner wrote,
“Bilbo Baggins was a Hobbit who lived in his Hobbit hole and never went for adventures, at last Gandalf the wizard and his Dwarves persuaded him to go. He had a very exiting [sic] time fighting goblins and wargs. At last they get to the lonely mountain; Smaug, the dragon who guards it is killed and after a terrific battle with the goblins he returned home — rich! This book, with the help of maps, does not need any illustrations it is good and should appeal to all children between the ages of 5 and 9.
That Rayner’s review of The Hobbit remains part of the prelude to the story of Tolkien’s literary legacy is poignant in its own right; yet, it also serves as inspiration for what my eight-year-old son Owen and I offer here: a co-written review of Terrapin for young and old alike.
When I learned that Terrapin would be released this fall, I pre-ordered the text before I knew what I was getting myself into—because those of us who are drawn to the works of Wendell Berry often purchase any work that bears his name; I hope that’s a forgivable flaw. I was surprised, though, when I read the blurb online (which can also be found on the inside of the front dust-jacket) and found that Terrapin was a collaborative effort—not solely the work of Wendell Berry. The book is, in fact, the fruit of the co-labor of award winning illustrator Tom Pohrt, seasoned book designer David Bullen (a longtime collaborator with Jack Shoemaker, Editorial Director of Counterpoint Press), and the poems of Wendell Berry. The impetus for the work was Tom Pohrt’s, and he “spent years gathering those poems of Wendell Berry’s he imagined children might read and appreciate, making sketches to accompany his selection.” But it is over the last few years that Pohrt and Berry began a dialogue “in which the poet [came] to advise the illustrator on the natural history of the animals and the plants seen so intimately in the poems”—a dialogue which culminated in Terrapin.
I was struck by Terrapin’s claim to be a collection of poems accompanied by illustrations that would appeal to and be appreciated by children because, though Berry’s poetry has likely been called many things, it was hard for me to imagine them as “child-friendly.” My hesitation at this claim was not because Berry’s poems are inappropriate for children, but because they are weighty, complicated, and thoughtful—not exactly the sorts of attributes we assign to children’s literature (not, at least, if we hope to raise happy children).
Let me say from the outset that I am glad to have been proven quite wrong in my hesitation. Having recalled the story of Rayner Unwin’s involvement in vetting The Hobbit, I thought it might be good to test the claim that this is a book for children by reviewing it with my son. I asked him if he would be interested in reading the poems and engaging the illustrations with me—he was happy to do so. But lest you think Owen does this sort of thing on a regular basis, I should say a bit about him. Owen is our eldest, an eight-year-old boy who doesn’t stand out in a crowd. He’s not particularly precocious (I give you my word!): he likes playing soccer, creating in Minecraft, has to be told to hang his coat up and put his shoes away, and has already established a small group of friends who are really very good boys, even if they are moved by a sort of humor most of us adults grow out of. He is, though, a voracious reader, and has been encouraged by his teacher to pursue good and challenging books. He reads so much that we often cannot get him to put his books down—even at the dinner table. And though his taste in reading is wide-ranging, from fantasy to mystery to adventure, he is already drawn to good writing and is beginning to form opinions about which books he reads are good or bad and why he imagines they are such.
Owen and I sat down on two different occasions in the last week to read Terrapin; the first was on a Saturday, and the second was in the evening on a school day. Our Saturday session went more smoothly than the school day one, mostly because he was tired at the end of a long day of work. Our plan was simple: I asked him to begin with the cover and to move to the first poem, observing as he went. When we got to the first illustration and poem, I asked him to read each poem aloud, after which we would discuss what he thought of the poem and illustration together. Owen has never read poetry that isn’t singsongy and childish—so I was surprised when he was able, with almost no help, to read through the poems in the collection with ease (below we’ve included three recordings of Owen reading); he did not hesitate at the frequent enjambments and only needed help when he came to the few words he did not know—a testament to the clarity of each poem’s content and the appropriateness of the vocabulary level throughout.
As Owen began to ruminate on each poem and illustration, I sat next to him with my computer and typed, verbatim, what he said. We’ve decided, in this review that, for the sake of truth to writing, I would not edit what Owen said beyond adding context and brief clarifications—his words stand on their own as a testament to the beauty and power of Terrapin to call out profound observations from a thoughtful child. Therefore, what we offer now is a glimpse at a handful of poems and illustrations that particularly moved Owen, some for their humor, some for their beauty.
Perhaps Owen’s favorite poem of the collection was “A Squirrel.” When he turned to the page, he said to the rest of the family, “I want you guys to hear this one! It’s funny!!!” As he read the poem aloud, he laughed when he got to “Some hairs were missing from his tail / Where a hawk just barely missed a meal.” He was quick to point out how well the illustration added to the joy of the poem. When I asked him why he liked the poem and illustration so much, he said it was because “it has a hint of funniness and action,” and “because in the picture the squirrel’s standing on the tree showing his tail that is bare, he’s looking surprised, like he had no idea what just happened.” We have a squirrel who lives in our back yard and is known to us as Nutsy—so there was an added pleasure for us in this poem. Owen also noticed that the poem rhymed; and though he wasn’t able to identify the rhymes as couplets, he was nonetheless intrigued. When I asked him why we like rhyming, he responded, “Huh, why do we?” I had to help him along a bit by asking how it made the poem sound, to which he replied, “It just makes it feel fast almost, like it happened really quickly, because if you read it really fast, ‘He’s in no haste,’ it means he doesn’t care about anything in the world, he just feels great, nothing can bother him; although then there’s, ‘He should have hurried,’ and then the hawk swoops down and he’s hasty and he tries to get away.” That the poem and illustration work together to help a child appreciate the harmony of form and content is surely to be admired.
One thing we hoped to convey in our review is that Tom Pohrt’s illustrations are not childish, but child-friendly. He does not condescend to his audience; rather, he invites us to regain a childlike vision of the world, by which we see that beauty abounds even in our backyards. In his reading of the watercolor that accompanies “October 10,” Owen reminded me that I ought not see the leaves falling in our yard as the sign of seemingly endless work. As he contemplated the image, he noted that “They look like their leaves are golden and brown and red and they’re swaying in the wind with the sound of the leaves falling.” I was struck by all he saw in this image, and prodded him to say a bit more—“The leaves look like they are dancing elegantly in the wind like dancers.” My wife heard him say this too and was moved by his playful metaphor. And I sat somewhat ashamed at my need to recover a view of the world in which leaves are like dancers. After a brief pause, he concluded: “That’s funny, the poem is ‘October 10,’ and the page is the 10th page!”
I was perhaps most surprised by Owen’s reflection on “The Sorrel Filly,” one of the longer poems in the collection. My assumption was that he would find the poem to be too long, that he might lose his concentration and thus the meaning in the poem. When he finished reading, he said that he liked the watercolor, which shows a filly standing in the midst of a field, “because it shows a lot of detail: it lives in a field near what looks like a pond by the woods and the sun is setting.” Figuring that he would not have much to say about the poem, I asked if he wanted to move on or if he wanted to say what he thought the poem meant. He told me that he “liked it because it was explaining how everybody can want money and then once they’ve sold the thing that they think will give them money, they suddenly realize that the horse is what they loved and spent time with.” Surprised that he had noted what seemed to me to be a complexity of the poem, I asked him what made him think that. He answered me with the poem’s own words: “Because at the end of the poem he says ‘Now in the quiet I stand / and look at her a long time, glad / to have recovered what is lost / in the exchange of something for money.’” In my silence, he restated his clear and moral reading: “He was blinded by the greed of money until he finally realized that his filly is worth more than money.”
Owen also laughed at “My Nose,” a self-deprecating poem wherein the speaker imagines others may mistake his nose for sundry vegetables: “It looks really funny because it’s him and he’s looking like he isn’t feeling good because of his nose; and he has a frown; he sort of looks silly and sort of embarrassed maybe. He looks really concerned about his nose.” He was also fond of the short poem, “Walnut St., Oak St., Sycamore St., Etc.,” because it “goes along with the title because they’re all names of the trees and street. It sounds like he’s saying they flew away and went on signs; and the picture shows that there are the trees and he’s walking on the path, it just looks realistic. It makes you feel like you want to go there, and it sort of comforts you because it’s warm and it looks like the trees are shading the path and there’s a field in front of it.”
That Terrapin evoked out of Owen his true childlikeness was most evident to me in the title poem, “The Terrapin.” It was a joy to watch him read the poem, contemplate the watercolor, and imagine what it would be like to be a creature whose home is on his back. Owen vacillated between the sorrow of loneliness and the joy of independence: “He might be sad that nobody comes; but he might be happy that he’s left alone, because predators might attack him.” He tried to imagine what it would be like to have one’s home on one’s back: “Wherever he goes, he’s never gone from his house! Like it’s just magically floating over his head all the time; he doesn’t have enough room for furniture; he isn’t afraid that he can lose his house because it’s always right with him. That would be nice, always having your bed right on your back!” Indeed, that would be nice.
To be sure, there were a few poems that gave Owen more trouble than the others (e.g., “To Know The Dark” and “Planting Trees”). Nevertheless, Owen and I believe that Terrapin accomplishes what its blurb boasts: to be “the perfect gift for children, grandchildren, or any lover of the book as physical object.” And Owen would like our readers to know that he thinks Wendell Berry “is very experienced and he takes his time and doesn’t rush through things; he puts some thought into it,” and that Tom Pohrt “takes his time too and does his best to make the book beautiful and elegant and realistic.” Best of all, Owen was moved to creativity by Terrapin: “It inspires me to work together and illustrate and do poems because they are easier to do than big books I think, but you still need to put a lot of thought into them.” In the end, we believe that Terrapin would appeal to “a reader that likes poems that are in the middle-area of difficulty,” and we “recommend that you read this and would give it 5/5 stars!”
Owen R. Baker and Jack R. Baker
[Links to Owen reading “The Terrapin,” “A Squirrel,” and “My Nose” on Soundcloud: