March 23, 2012

Wynken, Blynken and Nod

Wynken, Blynken and Nod
By Eugene W. Field; illus. by David McPhail
No Author Site; No Illustrator Site
0-4 Preschool Scholastic 18 pp.
978-0439921442 Board Book $6.99

Possibly one of the most reproduced children's poems of the 20th century, Eugene Field's lullaby poem, "Wynken, Blynken and Nod" has been animated, put to music and illustrated countless times since its publication in 1889. Why then the need for another edition, this time illustrated by children's book author and illustrator David McPhail? For the simple reason that the poem endures as a childhood favorite, passed down from parent to child through countless multigenerational bedtimes. McPhail's edition for Scholastic is simply a fresh version for the newest generation.

Wynken, Blynken and Nod tells the story of three fishermen who sail the night sky in a wooden shoe. In McPhail's illustrations, the fisherman are three bunnies dressed in sailor-clothes, an appropriately whimsical choice for this drowsy lullaby poem. On their journey, the fishermen meet the moon, who sings a song as they toss their nets into the sea of dew. Then it's back home to a modern little girl's bedroom, where it is revealed that "Wynken and Blyken are two little eyes, and Nod is a little head, and the wooden shoe that sailed the skies is a wee one's trundle bed." Then the fishermen upend a barrel of stars onto the girl's blanket, whereupon she promptly falls asleep with three pairs of rabbit ears peeking out from beneath her covers as the shoe sails back out the window to rendezvous with the moon.

McPhail's palette is dark and soothing, with lots of rich, deep blues and warm candle-lit yellows setting a drowsy visual tone. He makes the transition from the fanciful bunny fisherman to the modern girl's bedroom smoothly, making it seem plausible that the entire book had perhaps been the girl's dream - or perhaps not. This sweet ambiguity comes from McPhail's juxtaposition of images that are by turns timeless (the wooden shoe, the costumed bunnies) and modern (a little girl with short hair climbing into bed in her own room), a balance he strikes seamlessly and to good effect.

Despite McPhail's lovely work, Field's poem is still the heart of the book. He uses rhythm and rhyme to expertly mimic the feeling of drifting to sleep. Wisely, McPhail does not try to compete with this familiar and beloved text. Rather, he supports it with pictures that are consistent (the bunnies and shoe are in every page) without getting stale (he keeps things fresh by shifting visual perspectives and POV). The result is a lovely, understated edition of a poem that has been a favorite of generations. That this edition makes it possible to introduce a new generation to the poem (and in some cases, to poetry in general) feels like a dream - a very, very good one.

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