Hair-bearers in terse verses for kids

MAMMALABILIA Written and illustrated by Douglas Florian Harcourt Press 48 pp., $16 Ages 5-10

Aardvarks aare odd./ Aardvarks aare staark./ Aardvarks look better/ By faar in the daark."

Great little poem, but wait a minute. Did someone forget to spell-check? No, poet-artist Douglas Florian is simply having fun. His new book, with the tongue-twisting title "mammalabilia," is filled with such misspellings, newly minted words, and shaped text. For Florian, it's all part of being poetic: "When I write a poem," he writes, "I spell words wrong on purpose, use bad grammar, and invent new words. I do all this to make my poems better. That's called poetic license, and I renew that license every year."

How long Florian had to stand in line to renew his poetic (and artistic) license, we don't know. But it was time well spent.

Twenty-one mammals are the subjects of this sophisticated and entertaining volume. The poems describing them are short, pithy, and clever, focusing on a signature feature or activity of each animal. The otter loves water. The bear hibernates. And the elephant eats.

The simplicity and brevity of these verses make them easy for both children and adults to repeat and remember. Several are candidates for favorite poems. "The Giraffe" is one of mine: "Rubber-necker/ Double-decker/ Cloud-checker/ Star-trekker."

Every double-page spread is a perfect match of poem and picture. The verses, each beautifully set on a clean white page, are paired with full-color animal portraits. Florian rendered these dramatic, whimsical, and easy-to-enjoy illustrations with opaque watercolor paints on brown paper bags. His restricted palette - dominated by a coppery orange, new-spring green, and deep turquoise blue - lends a sense of continuity and control to free and energizing forms. The interplay between art and text enriches them both, and, of course, the reader.

* Karen Carden reviews children's books for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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