30 November 2007

Rhythm, Rhymes, and Gzonks

Though we remember Dr. Seuss for his narrative books, such as Horton Hears a Who and The Cat in the Hat, he also wrote a number of plotless picture books that relied on the sheer power of accumulating nonsense. These include If I Ran the Circus, If I Ran the Zoo, and the venerable And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

In the latter category, my favorite was probably On Beyond Zebra!, which took the normal form of an alphabet book but discussed letters no other author had used. (Other alphabet books I recall vividly from childhood were those by Richard Scarry, P. L. Travers, and H. A. and Margaret Rey.)

Tony DiTerlizzi plays similar tricks with the alphabet book form in G Is for One Gzonk! Each letter of the alphabet introduces a creature not found anywhere else, such as the eponymous gzonk. The pages show of DiTerlizzi's creature-creating talent, honed from illustrating Magic cards and co-creating the Spiderwick series.

The young bespectacled stand-in for the author-illustrator vows to make his alphabet different by not pointing out anything else on the page that begins with the crucial letter. Though he can't resist ponting out what he's not pointing out. And then some Woos, who resemble hovering water balloons with numbers attached, keep invading the pages, trying to turn the alphabet book into a number book. Their contributions to the text appear in a different color and type style from the narrator's.

With all the arguments and twists, G is for Gzonk! requires 80 pages to get through twenty-six letters of the alphabet and one number. That's an unusually large investment for a picture-book publisher, reflecting DiTerlizzi's success with Spiderwick and The Spider and the Fly.

Unfortunately, the book's rhyming text is just as irregular as its alphabet, and less intentionally. As I always say about stories in verse, rhyme is easy; rhythm is hard. Here are the book's first two stanzas, with the naturally emphasized syllables in capital letters:

HelLO! And WELcome TO my BOOK!
I am the AUTHor and ARTist
(as SOON you'll PLAINly SEE)

of this ALphaBET of CREACHlings!
A TWENty-six-LETter menAGerIE!
as you MAY have GUESSED,
it WON'T teach you A b C.
The lines never settle into a steady rhythm, iambic or otherwise. Compare the bumpy patterns above to "and to THINK that I SAW it on MULberry STREET." The most solidly metrical lines, such as "(as soon you'll plainly see)," add little to the text's meaning.

Dr. Seuss's nonsense texts showed his mastery of language, but I fear Gzonk's verse, like the Woos, show language overwhelming the author.


fusenumber8 said...

I think one of the reasons that On Beyond Zebra remains in one's brain, long after the reader has grown up, has to do with the tone of the illustrations as well. Seuss largely gets lauded for his words, but in that particular book I remember how dark a lot of the pictures were. There are images that become downright murky at times, and somehow the atmosphere of one page or another stayed with me long after the actual "letters" faded. DiTerlizzi's book is fine, but the colors remain consistently bright and cheery. Maybe mood isn't explored as much in picture books today as it could be.

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting memory of the darkness of the art in On Beyond Zebra!

Looking back, I think I interpreted the black as a child of the Space Age: going beyond Z was akin to going into outer space, where the sky is dark but the stars are brilliant.

Incidentally, there are proposed Unicode values for many of Dr. Seuss's special inventions.

As for mood in modern picture books, Tony DiTerlizzi achieved that in his Spider and the Fly. As I understand it, he had to fight against prevailing publishing wisdom that kids won't read black-and-white picture books.

david elzey said...

I was so distressed by the rhythm of this book, thank you for stating so clearly what I could only feel... like the scraping of a dull knife against a chalk board.

It's the kind of thing that makes me wonder why editors exist. I mean, clearly, can't they "hear" that it doesn't work?

J. L. Bell said...

Some people can't hear poetic rhythm, or can convince themselves that it doesn't sound wrong (or that they must be wrong in what they hear).

But in this case, DiTerlizzi had a project that he'd believed in for a while, as I understand it. He also had the clout of a bestselling series and a Newbery Honor. I wouldn't be surprised if the publishing house decided to publish it because of its strengths and overlook its weakness.

We also don't know whether the final text was significantly improved by editorial work.