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BRONWEN, THE TRAW, AND THE SHAPE-SHIFTER: A POEM IN FOUR PARTS by James Dickey, illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $13.95; 32 pp.; ages 6-10).

January 18, 1987|KRISTIANA GREGORY

Maybe it's the nature of parents who also happen to be best-selling authors. Some tell their children a bedtime story over and over until it sounds so blasted fantastic, why, the rest of the world must be dying to hear it, too, and off to a publisher they march. James Herriot did it two years ago with his warbly "Moses the Kitten." Recently James Clavell finished "Thrump-O-Moto," and William Kennedy and his son Brendan stirred up some malarkey in "Charley Malarkey and the Belly-Button Machine."

Now poet and novelist James Dickey shares what originated with stories he told his young daughter, Bronwen. "I like to mythologize my children and grandchildren," he comments on the book's flap. True, kids will stay interested if you tell tales with them in the hero's seat.

Well, this epic poem will certainly thrill Bronwen Dickey, but its 122 stanzas might seem tortuously long to others. Bronwen of the title lives with her parents in a house overlooking a river. By day, she digs in the garden with her traw (gardening tool), but at night, the All-Dark shifts the shapes, frightening her and the friendly squirrels who fly her to their kingdom. There she and her magic traw battle the Shape-Shifter's Four Forms: earth, water, fire and air. It's a Beowulf for kids where the heroine conquers that which she and her peers fear.

Length aside, this is a gorgeous book. Richard Jesse Watson's large black-and-white drawings are of portrait quality laced with enchantment. The squirrel tapping at Bronwen's window is so real, of course she'll speak to it. "The fur of its shade ruffled softly/As it held the far side of the chill/Who would let such a soft thing stay warmless?/Bronwen lifted the sash from the sill." Dickey's love for language is apparent as he continually weaves poetic images into his rhymes. One hopes others will be as spellbound with this epic as he and his daughter were.

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