The Animal That Drank Up Sound, by William Stafford, illustrated by Debra Frasier
How does one review a book like this one? I am no stranger to reviewing books by William Stafford , and I have even read a children’s book that was made like this book from one of the author’s poems. That said, this is not an easy book to review fairly. How one takes this book will depend a great deal on what expectations one comes to this book with and what is the most important quality about a book, especially a book like this one that appears to be aimed at a young audience as well as those who would be reading the book to others. The text of the titular poem is not the problem here, but rather the context in which that poem is presented. Does one knock the book because of the artwork or does one give the book a pass or think well of it because one enjoys the poetry. I personally take the latter approach with this book, but at the same time I find it necessary at least to comment on the fact that the book is not blessed with an overabundance or beautiful art and that is a real shame.
This book, as one might imagine, is pretty straightforward in its contents. The book begins with some acknowledgements from the poet and illustrator, contains the single titular poem divided by phrase along with some rather ordinary looking collage drawings done with paint and glue that look they could have been made by some of the book’s target reading audience, followed by some discussions by the author and illustrator about how they were inspired to create this book. As one might imagine, the story by William Stafford about a visit to somewhere in rural Oregon where he was inspired by the eerie silence of the place is the more interesting tale. If you come to this book looking for a beautifully drawn book for easily bored children, you are probably not going to enjoy this particular volume very much. But if you want a simple but resonant book that features intriguing and thought provoking material that is nevertheless accessible and interesting to young readers or listeners, this book is indeed interesting. Again, what you get out of this book will depend in large part on what you want from it.
It must be noted that “The Animal That Drank Up Sound” is a particularly resonant poem by Stafford. Whatever its inspiration in the natural world, the poem has acquired a great deal of interest because of the political undertones of the poem. The poem exists on at least two levels, one of them dealing with an animal whose hunger for sound but whose inability to create it from its own resources serve as an immensely destructive phenomenon and the other seeing that animal as symbolic of governments and the way that they frequently serve as parasitic elements of the peoples they are meant to serve and oppressors of those who make sound like poets and other creative people. While I think that Stafford wisely does not choose to emphasize the political angle of this poem, it is not surprising that such a layer of meaning is easy to read in this work, especially when one knows something about Stafford’s ambivalent view towards government given his own experiences as a Conscientious Objector during World War II and his staunch opposition to militarism in general. This is a poem that is both accessible to children and full of far deeper meanings for adults to ponder, and that makes this a worthwhile book even if its art is not particularly beautiful.
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