Sunday, March 20, 2011


IN 1957 JOHN UPDIKE PUBLISHED his first book, The Carpentered Hen and other tame creatures, a collection of poems that had appeared in The New Yorker starting in 1954. His second child David had been born the year before, and included at the end of the book is a series of poems collectively titled A Cheerful Alphabet of Pleasant Objects with the dedication "to David." What follows is twenty-six poems, one for each letter of the alphabet. Apple, Birdbath, Cog, Doily... Most are not subjects that would generally appear in a child's abecedaria--Ottoman, Trivet--and the poems are not really for children. From Ottoman: "Lessons in history: the Greeks / Were once more civilized than Swedes. / Iranians were, for several weeks, / Invincible, as Medes." There are cute observations and some concrete poems (see below), but overall the poems are weak, and Updike chose not to include them in his 1993 collection, Collected Poems: 1953-1993.

 From The Carpentered Hen reprinted in Verse (1965)

From The Carpentered Hen reprinted in Verse (1965)

Two years after Collected Poems, Updike published his final children's book, A Helpful Alphabet of Friendly Objects. This time, David, now forty-two and with a son of his own, provided the photographic illustrations, which are largely of Updike's grandchildren (with a cameo by Updike himself). This time the dedication is to the grandchildren: "For Anoff, Kwame, Wesley, Trevor, and Kai cousins all." With the exception of Apple, none of the objects from the first alphabet are repeated in the second, and now the traditional Bird, Cat, Dog appear. The verses are simpler too: "A bird has a beak, / a bright eye, / and wings. / In the sky, / it flies; / in the tree, / it sings." There is one concrete poem.

From A Helpful Alphabet of Friendly Objects (1995)

David Updike is an author in his own right, having published a number of short stories in The New Yorker, two collections of fiction, and several picture books, including a quartet of books about a boy Homer and his dog Sophocles, one for each season.

It is fitting that John Updike's writings for children started and ended with his own children and grandchildren.

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  2. Yes, you have a great blog. I come to it from Vintage Books... and I am glad she mentioned this blog.