Review of the Day: Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It by Gail Carson Levine
Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems
By Gail Carson Levine
Illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Harper (an imprint of Harper Collins)
On shelves March 13th
I tend to run my bookgroup for kids between the ages of 9-12 like a gentle dictatorship. I choose the books, the kids vote on them, and so it goes. Now if the kids had their way we’d be reading fantasy novels day in and day out every single week. With that in mind, I like to try to make them read something a little different once in a while. For example, one week I might try to get them to read a Newbery winner. The next I would try to encourage them to dip into some nonfiction. One type of book I haven’t had the nerve to attempt for years, though, is poetry. Finding a really good, really interesting, really smart book of poetry for kids of that age is tricky stuff. Poetic tastes vary considerably, so it’s best to start with a book with a hook. And by hook or by crook, Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It is basically the answer to my prayers I’ve been seeking all these long and lonely years. It has everything. Humor, engaging illustrations, a clever premise, potential (and very fun) applications, and a passive aggressive streak that’s nearly a mile long.
Do you know that old William Carlos Williams poem about the plums in the icebox? The one that calls itself “This is Just to Say”? When you think about that poem, I mean really think about it, it’s just the most self-satisfied little number you ever did see. Williams is clearly not sorry, though he included the words “forgive me” in there. With that as her inspiration, Gail Carson Levine has penned forty-five or so false apology poems modeled on Williams’. The rules are simple. “The first stanza states the horrible offense. The second stanza describes the effect of the offense. The last stanza begins with ‘Forgive me’ and continues with the false apology, because the writer is not sorry at all.” Mixing together fairy tales and silly situations, Levine’s poems span the gamut, from the cow in Jack and the Beanstalk taking issue with her monetary worth to a girl’s pets asking pseudo-forgiveness for enjoying her diary’s contents. Saying sorry without meaning it has never been this charming.
On the book’s dedication page read the words “To Susan Campbell Bartoletti, who led me down the poetry path.” I am currently in the process of putting in an order with FTD in the hopes of sending Ms. Bartoletti some flowers of my own. Whether intentionally or not, she has been at least partly responsible for helping to bring to this world a poet of undeniable talent. We all know Ms. Gail Carson Levine for her fantasy novels. Her Newbery Honor winning Ella Enchanted is probably her best known work. But when I saw that she had gone into the poetry business I couldn’t suppress a groan. Great. An author who thinks they can write. Whooptie-doo. Can’t wait to see what recycled trope makes its 100th appearance on the printed page yet again. Imagine my surprise then when I saw not only the idea behind the book (snarky in its mere conception, which is no easy task when you work in the world of juvenile literature) but the poems themselves. Ladies and gentlemen if I blame Ms. Levine for anything it is for denying the world her drop dead gorgeously twisted point of view for quite so long.
To back myself up I present to you the very format of the book itself. First up, the Table of Contents. It pretty much just consists of the words “This is Just to Say” over and over and over with different sizes and fonts and page numbers. You blink. You look at it again. You might shake your head slightly, and then you turn the page. Right off the bat you then encounter a pretty strange take on Sleeping Beauty, but it’s just kind of funny. Then you read a different poem about a brother committing foul, but not uncommon, acts upon his sister’s toys. Then you turn the page and that’s when the fun really starts. It’s a poem from the point of view of Snow White in which she lists the dwarfs poor hygiene and ends with “Forgive me / I’m making myself ugly / and leaving / with the witch.” This is accompanied by a picture of the crying dwarfs watching a now seriously ugly Snow White (she’s been crone-i-fied) arm in arm with the equally ugly evil witch. When I read this poem I immediately thought to myself, “I have never, ever, seen anyone do that before.” Turn the page and here’s a take on Jack and Jill where a gorilla purposefully causes Jack’s tumble via banana peel so that he can make Jill his girlfriend. Again my brain does a bit of a tarantella within my cranial cavity.
While reeling the reader encounters one or two more poems and then suddenly the Introduction to the book appears. It’s introduced by a poem in which Ms. Levine explains that her editor did not want the introduction at this point in the book. “Forgive me / I also shredded / her red pencil and stirred / the splinters into her tea.” After that we encounter Mr. William Carlos Williams, the original poem that inspired all of this, along with a very good two-page encapsulation of what these poems are and how one would go about making one. Teachers desperate for poetry assignments should rejoice. Levine spells out the format, even going so far as to say that you can “abandon the form completely and write false apology poems in your own cruel way.” Hey, man. Whatever gets ‘em writing. After that we plunge back into the woman’s poems and, by extension, her brain.
Generally speaking they’re pretty universally brilliant though once in a while a poem slips up. There’s one about that old song about the bear going over the mountain that ends a bit oddly and doesn’t pair as smoothly with its accompanying illustration as it might. And sometimes you do wonder if kids will get the references. Levine never names the fairy tales directly, often requiring you to figure them out for yourself (helped in no small part by Matthew Cordell’s valiant efforts to avoid drawing Disney characters). They’ll probably get the Beauty & the Beast poem in which Beauty proves a little too delectable. They may even understand the Pinocchio poem too. The Rumplestiltskin poem, however, stumped me for quite some time and I’m still not entirely certain I understand why he’s in the Dwarf Witness Protection Program at the end. Ah well. Collected poems are rarely equal in their magnificence, even when penned by a single creator.
The idea to pair these poems with the art of Matthew Cordell was certainly a good idea. Now Mr. Cordell has somehow managed to illustrate what looks to be something like FOUR books in 2012 alone. In this one, though, he’s really let his freak flag fly. Channeling everyone from Quentin Blake to Shel Silverstein, Cordell fills these pages with images as silly and as sardonic as Levine’s poems require. He even adds little touches of his own whenever possible. A graveyard poem in which a thief confesses crimes to the shocked skeletons present shows the lawbreaker reclining against tombstones sporting names like “Sgt. A.B. Solv” and “Honorable Conrad Fess”. Once in a while I don’t quite understand what he’s doing with his art (why are children attacking a lion when the accompanying poem is about how that lion just ate some kid’s parents?) but generally speaking it’s the top.
When you sit down and think of it, this book is almost the antithesis of that other work for children This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness by Joyce Sidman. Might be funny to pair these two together (though the universe might explode). And if you’re looking for smart works of poetry that could lead to writing assignments, consider pairing this book with Marilyn Singer’s Mirror Mirror or Bob Raczka’s Lemonade: And Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word. If you’re looking for works of children’s literature that have mentioned the William Carlos Williams poem in question you might want to check out Love That Dog by Sharon Creech or A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams by Jennifer Fisher Bryant. And if you’re look for a book that’s like this one in any way shape or form then all I can say to you is present to you this little poem of my own:
the book is too good on its own
and I am too lazy to do any research
On shelves March 13th
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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