Is Jack Prelutsky the Joyce Carol Oates of kidlit?
The standard gripe from my writing instructors and mentors over the years has been that Oates gets published too much and edited too little, thereby stealing valuable shelf space from presumably better but lesser-known authors (such as the aforementioned instructors and mentors).
Without any degree of snarkiness whatsoever -- no, really -- I lob that same grenade at the country's first Children's Poet Laureate, who seems bent on banking his new title rather than burnishing some new verses worthy of it.
I count at least five Prelutsky titles on my shelves with 2007 copyrights: Me I Am, a reprint of an older poem with new illustrations, Good Sports, which I lukewarmly reviewed here, the occasionally funny My Parents Think I'm Sleeping, which I quoted here, the plotless Wizard, and In Aunt Giraffe's Green Garden, which I may review if I can overcome couplet fatigue.
My husband figures the guy's close to retiring and is building his bank account. I'd rather finger our whole branding culture that, sadly, has nothing to do with hot irons and everything to do with the stupifying -- and stupid-making -- effects of mass marketing. Like Roger Sutton in this post, I don't blame Jack for cashing in. And I took careful note of this anti-Prelutsky screed too, which basically asks, Whither Jack?
As far as I can tell -- and I'm certainly not his publicist -- Prelutsky has been criss-crossing the country doing readings, most recently at Chicago's Printer's Row bookfest. His website isn't helpful in this regard; you'd think it'd list his appearances, at least.
My problem is with sheer tonnage. As a beleaguered Andy Warhol once said, "I can't tell what's good anymore." I think I've lost the knack for discerning which of Jack's recent verses aren't stamped from the same ticklish, end-with-a-kick mold; much of it's still good and readable and fun, but he perfected his shtick a while back and damned if he's gonna change now. Like Starbucks decor -- or, really, any franchise -- we learn to expect only comfy variations on a theme.
We're in the midst of a kidlit renaissance, with more titles published than ever. But I wonder how much of the cream rises to the surface. The Prelutsky brand is more like high fructose corn syrup; he's in everything. And you suspect the sugar rush comes rather cheaply and is probably bad for you.
I say this, of course, knowing I could be doocing myself out of a smart freelance gig at the Poetry Foundation, where I've begun editing their children's webpage. For those who don't know, the Children's Poet Laureate is their idea.
There's still much to love about Prelutsky, and much to appreciate in how he's made a career of elevating kids' poetry without aiming over their heads. That's not an easy trick, and his readings are some of the most fun you can have with your kids without getting messy.
But I find myself wanting something more from him, and I want it less.
*Off the Shelf is a new, occasional feature for whenever I have a rant-worthy topic.