A Visit to William Blake's Inn
I first discovered this book in an interview with Carson Ellis for NPR’s Storybook Project. William Blake’s Inn was one of the top five books picks to read her kids. It is written by Nancy Willard, who has written several books I loved as a child. Her light, lovely prose leaves the reader with a lingering wonder. Alice and Martin Provensen created the illustration of the imaginary inn and all it's visitors: bread baking dragons, the Man in the Marmalade Hat, the King of Cats, and the Wise Cow who lives in the sky all populate this charming world.
In the introduction, we learn that Willard first read Blake when she was 7 years old, and was bedridden with the measles. Her sitter recited Blake’s Tyger poem, and she fell in love. The woman later mailed her a copy of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, with an inscription stating that poetry is the best medicine. William Blake’s Inn was the first Newbery winning book to also be named a Caldecott Honor Book. It feels so good to read aloud, the poetry is delicious in the mouth. Equally Important, it challenges little listeners - It gives them something beautiful to fill their ears, but the deeper meanings will be something to ponder, not to be understood all at once. It will grow with them, into adulthood, and be an introduction to Blake's work.
In one poem the imaginary Blake leads several animal guests on a walk through the start of the Milky Way and inquires:
“Is everyone ready?
The night is uncommonly cold.
We’ll start on our journey as children,
but I fear we will finish it old.”
“Two mighty dragons brew and bake
and many are the loaves they’ve burned
and many are the spits they’ve turned
and many those who stop and break
their joyful bread with William Blake.”
A boy is shown to his room by a rabbit, to find a shaggy bear in place of a bed. The King of Cats dines - literally - “on the house” - a curious place to eat. The Man in the Marmalade Hat leads all the animals in a parade where "dancing starts where fighting ends.” My favorite poem is The Wise Cow Enjoys a Cloud:
“Where did you sleep last night, Wise Cow?
Where did you lay your head?
I caught my horns on a rolling cloud
and made myself a bed,
and in the morning ate it raw,
on freshly buttered bread.”
My daughter’s favorite poem is “The King of Cats Sends a Postcard to His Wife” in which he instructs her to “not grow fat like a common kitchen cat.” It sends her into giggles, and I think it also has something to do with the amazing illustration of the cat, eating his eggs next to Mr. Blake.
She can’t sit through he whole book at once, and we don’t read it that way. We do look at all the pictures in one sitting - but only read 5-7 poems depending on her interest level. Amazon rates the book for ages 4-7, grades 2-3. I think the advanced language of Willard’s poems is a bit of the antidote to the sensory overload of rapid fire story-telling in modern streaming video culture. I’ve since explored some of her adult fiction and poetry, and find it equally soothing.
In an essay for Writer magazine Willard says, "Most of us grow up and put magic away with other childish things. But I think we can all remember a time when magic was as real to us as science, and the things we couldn't see were as important as the things we could. ... I believe that all small children and some adults hold this view together with the scientific ones. I also believe that the great books for children come from those writers who hold both."