When I learned the dazzling Barbara McClintock had created the artwork for Natalie Merchant’s recently released Leave Your Sleep: A Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry, I just had to experience that. The stellar combination of McClintock’s lushly detailed, pen-and-ink and colored images with Merchant’s many-hued voice has produced a rare sensory feast for all ages. Along with the rich selection of 19 poems from Merchant’s 2010 album of the same title comes a full-length CD that shows off her musical virtuosity.
Featuring an amazing range of musical styles and moods (as depicted in this Macmillan YouTube), Merchant has crafted melodies that cleverly evoke the mood of each poem. Some classic poems — Stevenson’s dreamy “The Land of Nod,” Ogden Nash’s sassy “Adventures of Isabel,” and the beloved “I Saw a Ship A-Sailing” — show up here, but pleasant surprises abound, too. Particularly delightful is her adaptation of “The Dancing Bear” by Albert Bigelow Paine: “Oh, it’s fiddle-de-dum and fiddle-de-dee,/ The dancing bear ran away with me.” Merchant’s lilting voice trips along to the playful tune performed by the Klezmatics, with their bouncy accordion, horns, and, of course, a fiddle. A few poems (“Vain and Careless” by Robert Graves and “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience” by Charles Causley) might seem somewhat dark for inclusion in a children’s book, but Merchant wisely refuses to be hemmed in by traditional expectations.
In her intriguing introduction, Merchant explains this collection sprang from her experiences with her young daughter. “I tried to show her that speech could be the most delightful toy in her possession and that her mother tongue is rich with musical rhythms and rhymes. … Poetry speaks of so much: longing and sadness, joy and beauty, hope and disillusionment. These are the things that make a childhood, that time when we wake up to the great wonders and small terrors of our world.”
What a gift to be able to join her daughter in experiencing these poems by hearing them sung and by gazing at McClintock’s bounty of images that dip into exuberant ice-cream-cone licking (for Prelutsky’s “Bleezer’s Ice-Cream”) and the gentleness of a painted elephant (“The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe).
Why not start the year on a high note with this remarkable book and CD?
92nd Street Y’s K-3rd grade unit features Leave Your Sleep.
“Natalie Merchant on Motherhood as Muse,” from Huffington Post.