I don’t often read children’s books, I don’t have children of my own nor do I spend time with people who have children. However, when Carl Phillips in The Art of Daring discusses a few poems by Randall Jarrell and mentioned he had written a children’s book called The Bat-Poet, well, I had to check it out. My marvelous public library had a copy and I requested it immediately. Oh happy day when it arrived and I discovered it had illustrations by Maurice Sendak!
First published in 1964, just a year before Jarrell died at the age of 51, this is a little book that will delight everyone no matter what age. It is the story of a little brown bat “the color of coffee with cream in it,” who spends his days sleeping upside down from the roof of a porch snuggled up with the other bats. One day the other bats move into the barn to sleep but the brown bat didn’t want to sleep elsewhere so he stays on the porch alone. And because he is alone without the warmth of his companions, he begins waking up during the day and noticing things.
Like the mockingbird. The mockingbird sings and sings and sings and can imitate other animals and sounds. The bat is enchanted. He tries to sing but quickly discovers that bats can’t, so decides instead to imitate the mockingbird’s words. And the bat composes a poem:
At dawn, the sun shines like a million moons
And all the shadows are as bright as moonlight.
The birds begin to sing with all their might.
The world awakens and forgets the night.
He is so pleased with himself he wants to share his poem and all he has learned about thedaytime with the other bats. But the other bats just can’t be bothered. The sun hurts their eyes. They are too tired. Bats aren’t supposed to be awake during the day.
Disappointed, the little brown bat decides he will share one of his poems with the mockingbird. The mockingbird is so full of himself he has a hard time being impressed, but he does not completely discourage the brown bat’s poetic endeavors. So our little bat goes in search of a new audience and discovers the chipmunk. The chipmunk is at first afraid of the bat but eventually agrees to allow the bat to compose a poem about him and then return in a few days to recite it. Are you surprised to hear the chipmunk is delighted and becomes the bat’s best listener and cheerleader?
I won’t tell you more, you have to get a copy of this book and discover the rest of the story for yourself. It’s a lovely, gentle story about poetry, creativity, and being different. But it does not have a slick moral at the end that slaps you in the face. It is a story written by a poet after all. Don’t worry, our little brown bat doesn’t die, nor is he an outcast or anything like that. Winter comes and he does what brown bats do in winter, hibernates in the barn with the rest of the bats. But it is not a giving in to convention and giving up poetry either, because as out little bat falls asleep he is thinking of the poem he composed about bats that he plans on telling them all when they aren’t so sleepy.