“This facsimile edition of a 1922 children’s book features seventy-three dynamic and whimsical woodcut illustrations—the first woodcuts that the famed American craftsman Wharton Esherick produced. A high-quality replica authorized by the Wharton Esherick Museum, this book reveals the foundation of Esherick’s direction as an artist. Edited by Museum director Paul Eisenhauer, it also features a foreword by Museum assistant curator Laura Heemer. The illustrations frame verses that introduce children to the principles of evolution, a highly controversial topic at the time: the book was published three years before the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial of 1925 that resulted in the inclusion of the teaching of evolution in public schools. Drawn by the excitement of the controversy, Esherick threw his passion into these illustrations. Afterward he would go on to carve over 300 woodcuts, leading to decorative carving, and ultimately, to Esherick’s realization that he was a sculptor rather than a painter.” (schifferbooks.com)
I saw this on NetGalley and took ages to decide if I wanted to request it or not, as it’s not something I would normally read. But in an effort to read a more diverse range of books, I ended up requesting it, figuring I probably wouldn’t get approved for it anyway. Obviously I got approved and I’m really pleased I did as I loved reading it so much.
Rhymes of Early Jungle Folk is a collection of poems written by Mary E. Marcy, the intention of which was to introduce children to the theory of evolution. The earliest poems in the book focus on the creation of the world and the emergence of creatures from the sea, which then evolved into dinosaurs. From there it moves through time: the coming of the Ice Age, mammals evolving, and eventually the appearance of humans. I found the poems entertaining to read, and I really enjoyed the fact that although they are poems written for children, they’re not childish.
But the stars of the book are the woodcut illustrations that accompany each of the poems. The process for this is basically carving an image into wood, then inking it and making an imprint of it onto paper (that’s a very basic explanation – you can find out more here). The images themselves are quite simple, which I think makes them all the more perfect for their inclusion in a children’s book of poetry. As they were the first woodcuts made by Wharton Esherick, they are not perfect and have none of the elaborateness, precision, and detail of his later work (please note I’m not an Esherick expert, but I am an expert Googler). But I think it’s their imperfection that makes them so fantastic and perfectly suited to this book. They are almost childlike in their simplicity and as a result they complement the poems in a way that I don’t think hand drawn illustrations could have.
Obviously since it was originally published almost 100 years ago, some of the information is a little outdated, but for the most part the content hasn’t changed much from what we are taught today. It’s one of those books I would love to have had read to me when I was little – I feel like it may have sparked a love for poetry at a young age. Having said that, although upon its original publication in 1922 it was intended as poetry for children, I suspect that today’s parents would be unlikely to read it to their children (but not being a parent, I have zero clue what kids read these days). Funnily enough, upon looking at all the book websites I usually loiter on, none of them had the book classified as a children’s book, not even as a subcategory – it was classified as ‘Arts’, ‘Poetry’ and ‘Leisure’, and I’ve classified it as such for the purposes of this review. It makes me wonder what some of the children’s books of today will be classified as in 100 years time.
Regardless of its classification, it was lovely to read this and see how children were taught ideas in the early 1900’s. For me this book is important historically, most notably in terms of its content and the fact that it was published prior to evolution being taught in schools. But the illustrations are also beautiful to look at and see an artist just beginning in a new medium. While you may not necessarily read this to your children (or have them read it themselves), this book is definitely worth looking at for it’s historical significance.
Many thanks to Schiffer Publishing Ltd. and NetGalley for providing a review copy in exchange for an honest review!