2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Maurice Sendak's masterfully illustrated Where the Wild Things Are. About the same time that he was drawing Max and the Wild Things, Mr. Sendak illustrated a comparatively quiet little book by the poet Randall Jarrell entitled The Bat-Poet.
This book, beautifully illustrated, designed and produced, is, in itself, a convincing argument for the need to preserve the tradition of a bound, tangible, physical book. And even more amazing, as of this writing, the book is still in print.
The story begins like a personal essay with the narrative voice commenting in first person on several brown bats that hang from the roof of his porch. Then the story shifts and we begin to hear the tale of one of these little brown bats. First off, all of the bats, except for our hero, move to the barn; and when the lone bat invites them back, without success, he has trouble sleeping by himself, and he begins to wake up in the daytime hours when all the bats are usually asleep. Because he is awake he begins to notice the world around him--the other animals, the farm--and he begins to make up lines of verse to describe what he is seeing. He tries to share his poems with the other bats and his excitement about the daytime but they do not understand. He does, however, find other animals who like his poems and who encourage his talent.
At one point in the story the bat poet recites a new poem about bats to his chipmunk friend and he describes, in his verse, a mother bat with her baby clinging to her belly as they whirl through the night "their single shadow, printed on the moon or fluttering across the stars."
The story of this little bat poet encourages us to look about us at the world, to work to come to terms with our own sense of self, with our own talents--our art. It is a story about the art of words and language and how that art affects the artist--a poet in this case--and also the effect the poetry can have on those who will listen.
All of that in a slim children's book? Yes! The rich layering of meaning in this story makes a delightful tale for adults; but the story remains simple still and enjoyable for as young as preschool age, 4 years old and up. A subtle, beautiful introduction to the art of poetry and the work of the poet.
The exquisite illustrations are intricate pen and ink drawings which shadow the style of the 19th Century German illustrators that Maurice Sendak loved so well.
The Bat-Poet was selected as a New York Times Best Illustrated Book in 1964.
Randall Jarrell's first story for children was The Gingerbread Rabbit, with illustrations by Garth Williams. One of his six books of poetry--The Woman at the Washington Zoo--was given the National Book Award in 1961. At the time of his death in 1965, Mr. Jarrell was on the faculty of the University of North Carolina. He also served as Poetry Consultant for the Library of Congress.
Maurice Sendak also illustrated Randall Jarrell's The Animal Family, as well as The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm which includes four tales translated by Mr. Jarrell but not published until 1973. In 1964, Mr. Sendak received the Caldecott Medal, the most prestigious prize in America for children's book illustration, for his picture book Where the Wild Things Are.
Randall Jarrell and Maurice Sendak combined their talents for the first time with this book, The Bat-Poet. They would work together on several other projects culminating in the publication of their book Fly by Night which was published a few years after Randall Jarrell's untimely death--he was only 55 years old.
The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell with pictures by Maurice Sendak, 1963, 1964 Macmillan Publishing Co., NY