Shel Silverstein is both revered and reviled in the world of children's books. Revered for poetry collections such as "Where the Sidewalk Ends." Reviled for taking up so much space in bookstores and creating characters some critics deem too dark and naughty for tender minds.
Silverstein's newest book, published posthumously, is a giddy, gleeful mess of contradictions, pivoting on Spoonerisms - transpositions of initial letters of words within a phrase, as in this "billy sook's" title of "Runny Babbit." Beneath the witty tongue twisters and their vivid tales are more subtle messages, too. Silverstein's trademark black-and-white drawings are here as well, this time of a faithful animal gang that includes Rirty Dat, Ploppy Sig, Calley At, and Toe Jurtle.
There are nods to the grand legends of children's lore: Yankee Doodle makes an appearance, as do George Washington's cherry tree and Cinderella's shoe. Even Mt. Rushmore gets a visit from Runny - who carves a flop-eared face between Roosevelt and Lincoln. But most of the book is classic Silverstein, full of kindred spirits for every mischievous, adventurous, bumbling child who's willing to see a bit of himself in a well-meaning rabbit.
Silverstein, after all, is a master of making the quotidian fantastic. Every aspect of a child's life, from naps and nose-picking to gorging on pancakes, finds its way into his pages. Runny learns to feed himself in his high chair, has growing pains as mosquitoes stretch his ears, and, in the book's final pages, gets a girlfriend (his "Peety-Swie") and receives a bundled-up piglet from a stork who has the delightful Spoonerism nickname: Sticky Dork.
Runny is wild and clumsy at times: He cuts his tail, he lies to his mother. But he is also a bunny with such a kind heart that he cries one frosty morning to see bugs shivering outside - and then invites them into his warren "where it was carm and wozy," rubs their toes and noses, dishes up carrot soup, and puts them all to bed.
The Spoonerisms can be a mouthful, but Silverstein's book, like its bunny, is unfailingly kindhearted. And if the jumbled letters fluster some parents, well, that may add to the beauty of "Runny Babbit." Most of all, the book offers a rare sense of the sheer pleasure of language, and for children who get the hang of it, Silverstein speaks a language all their own.
• Christina McCarroll is on the Monitor's staff.