The Beauty of the Beast

selected by Jack Prelutsky

illustrated by Meilo So

Published by Knopf

112 pages, 2006




Poetry and Literature 101

Reviewed by Monica Stark


The Beauty of the Beast works at every level. In the first place, it's a marvelous anthology of the work of 20th and 21st century poets. Some of the names of the writers included here will be familiar even to those without a strong familiarity of poetry and poets: D.H. Lawrence, Jack Kerouac, Paul Groves, Robert Frost, Seamus Heaney, Ogden Nash, Carl Sandberg, Banko, John Milton, Isak Dinesen and others. In fact, the work of 100 writers and poets are represented here and, in total, 200 poems are included. Those are pretty impressive numbers in an illustrated book just 112 pages long.

This is not, of course, the most in-depth, soul-searching-est work of these authors. Rather, the selected poems are themed around the title topic -- the beauty of beasts -- and aimed at a very specific group of readers: though all ages might enjoy The Beauty of the Beasts, the book is packaged and marketed for children and I can't help but think that the poems included were selected with children in mind.

The poems are arranged thematically, beginning with insects ("In trillions we thrive"), then moving to fish ("Jubilant we swim") then on to reptiles and amphibians ("Dragons in miniature") and so on, right through to the final -- and largest -- chapter on mammals ("Wrapped in coats of fur").

And so, on the topic of elephants, Kerouac chimes in charmingly:

Elephants munching
on grass -- loving
Heads side by side.

While D.H. Lawrence -- yes: him of Lawrence of Arabia -- contributes:

Plod! Plod!
And what ages of time
the worn arches of their spines support!

The poems are accompanied by beautiful watercolor paintings on-topic by Meilo So. They are as delicate and evocative as the poems they illustrate and they make the ride through the book complete.

What's especially lovely here -- in a book practically composed of loveliness -- is the thorough and charming exposure to literature and the arts that children get from The Beauty of the Beast with every breath they take. This is a book meant to be savored, enjoyed. A poem or three at bedtime, for instance, perhaps sprinkled with discussion on the illustrations that accompany the poems read.

The poems in the collection were selected by American children's poet laureate (I made that up, but if there was one, he'd be it) Jack Prelutsky, author of Tyrannosaurus Was a Beast, The Dragons Are Singing Tonight, The Random House Book of Poetry for Children and many, many others. And, appropriately enough, Prelutsky's own poems fill out the collection, adding his sharp eye for detail as well as his cheerful and Zenlike commentary. ("An auk on land is not so grand -- an auk walks aukwardly.")

Originally published to wide acclaim in 1997, The Beauty of the Beast had slid out of print in the time between and has been brought back just in time for poetry month, 2006. Whether you plan on sipping from the book with your children or slipping it off the shelf to enjoy in a quiet moment, it's lovely to have it back. | March 2006


Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.