Friday, July 10, 2015

Book Review: Roomrimes

Title: Roomrimes

Author: Sylvia Cassedy

Illustrator: Michele Chessare

Publisher: Thomas Y. Crowell

Date: 1987

Length: 72 pages

ISBN: 0-690-04467-4 or 4466-6

Quote: “The keep is where the keys are kept, / the ring, the crown, the ruby comb; / where heaps of diamond dust are swept / by one whose castle is his home.”

Sylvia Cassedy may have been the only person who ever wrote a collection of 26 poems about rooms, arranged alphabetically: Attic, Basement, Closet, Den, Elevator, Fire Escape, Greenhouse, Haunted room, Imaginary room, Jungle Gym, Keep, Loft, Mirror, Nest, Office, Parlor, Quiet room, Roof, Shell, Tunnel, Upstairs, Vestibule, Widow's Walk, X, Your room, and Zoo. This is not exactly the formula for poetry likely to be preserved among the great literary masterpieces of the world, but it is an interesting way to arrange a book that will encourage young readers to play with sounds and pay attention to the sound of what they write.

Roomrimes also encourage young readers to explore poetic forms. Despite a predilection for that cliché of Poems For Children, the rhymed couplet that tries to seem longer than it really is by having its lines broken up (“How nice,” / he said / when he / had done. / “But uses / it has / plainly / none”), Cassedy has demonstrated the usefulness of a few easy, middle-school-accessible traditional forms: the quatrain quoted above, straightforward couplets (“Apartment houses, as a rule, / are entered through a vestibule”), a haiku. Roomrimes also includes at least one completely rimeless bit of Free Verse, and one of those early-twentieth-century Modern Poems where a new “form” is invented to look like the subject—the “Elevator” poem runs up and down parallel narrow “shafts” of type on the page.

What, in fact, makes Roomrimes a book for middle school readers? Primarily, I think, the fact that Sylvia Cassedy wrote novels, also illustrated by Michele Chessare, for middle school readers. The poems themselves are light, whimsical, and likely to amuse teenagers and adults as well as ten-to-twelve-year-olds, and Cassedy's quirky viewpoint doesn't sound as if she's writing down to ten-to-twelve-year-olds. She might indulge young readers with a few gross-out images (“An arc of mold, / soft as the fluff / in the crease / of a cuff / and smelling / divinely /of rot, / steadily spreads”) or even more than a few (“Smack in the pit / of your bed /is a sack / of what looks / to be spiders / or whacking- / big fleas”). She might describe the occupants of most of the “rooms,” when they are human, in terms that suggest humans between the ages of ten and fifteen, although the “Den” seems to belong to a married couple (“for him, an ottoman; / for her, an ottowoman”). And I found nothing erotic in this book.

But if other readers, like my late husband, want to define the difference between children's and adults' poems in terms of the poems' awareness of human mortality...well, the “Attic” harbors “a company of silent things: / A crowd of husks / where wasps once hummed; / a shrouded couch / with silenced springs,” and the “Greenhouse” is a place where “scraps of snow die at the walls,” and the “Shell” “lies...where skulls of blackfish / wash ashore; / where schooners sank / and spilled their store.” Cassedy's “Widow's Walk” doesn't seem to be living up to its ominous name yet, and the “Haunted Room” may be a way of denying human mortality. Readers will have to make up their own minds about her “X.” Let's just say that these poems, though child-accessible, aren't an attempt to recreate the sweet, nice, perfectly rimed Children's Poems that were read to us in primary school. They're odder, grittier, more likely to induce a chuckle or a serious reflection in people over age eight or ten, and less likely to be appreciated by most preschoolers or primary-schoolers, though one never knows.

Roomrimes is an ideal book for middle school “enrichment classes” or youth clubs to read and perhaps imitate during their obligatory dabble in poetry, but adults with some sense of humor and whimsy are likely to enjoy reading it too. To buy it here, send $5 per book + $5 per package to salolianigodagewi @