In today’s issue of The New York Times Book Review, Holly Black considers Lies Knives and Girls in Red Dresses, Ron Koertge’s book of poems that retell familiar fairy tales in a decidedly modern voice. Any review is a good thing. Any review in the Times is a very good thing. (A good thing for the ego, anyway. An editor told me that a Times review doesn’t usually sell many books, but I think it’s good for the writer’s reputation, and it certainly feels good.) This review of Ron Koertge’s new book of poems, however, exemplifies the frequent condescension to children’s literature in American commentary on the arts.
Last year, in a New Yorker essay about Paula Fox’s oeuvre, Joan Acocella, dispensed with the Newbery Medal winner’s “twenty-two children’s books–actually they are ‘young adult novels,'” with two sentences. “[T]hese, less daunting to write than regular fiction, may have interfered with her work on novels.” By that last word, Acocella means Fox’s six novels for adult readers–that is, her real novels, as if her children’s fiction were a dirty little secret, a vice she practiced to avoid actual work.
This sort of false distinction makes Paula Fox’s One-Eyed Cat and The Slave Dancer; Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales; T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats; and Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories something less valuable than their authors’ other work, merely by virtue of the usual audience’s age. On the contrary, all of these works, including Ron Koertge’s Lies Knives and Girls in Red Dresses, are worthy of adult interest and professional literary criticism, by people who can distinguish blank verse from their hind quarters.
I do think that much of the socalled poetry that is published for children is ignorable. Koertge’s poetry, however, is anything but that kind of doggerel. Contrary to Black’s broad description of them as blank verse, these diverse poems demonstrate his supple practice of various poetic forms. Black might have
said more about the poems’ acid humor, too, and the Swiftian satire on contemporary society, and the ironic mockery of conventional romantic blather.
Of course, we should cut Black some slack. Undoubtedly the Times editor gave her a skimpy word limit. We must be grateful, in these dark days, that a book of poems for any audience, especially such a tart and serious book, should be noticed at all.