The Dally. Copyright © Matthew Mehan, and John Folley, Illustrators
Matthew Mehan is a man of many parts. (If he had written that sentence the last word would begin with “m” since he loves alliteration.) He is a poet, scholar, teacher and musician, and was even, in the founding era of MercatorNet, its North American editor. Since then, he has earned a PhD in literature and philosophy from the University of Dallas, and, with his wife Molly, founded a growing family.
Matthew is the Director of The Robert H. Jackson Honors Thesis Program & Humanities Instructor at The Heights School in Washington, DC, and a teaching fellow at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, also in Washington. He is a fellow of several other institutions as well.
He is, in other words, well qualified to be the author of an illustrated book of children’s poetry, published this week: Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals. “M5” conjures up a mythical beast for each letter of the alphabet in verse and in fabulous paintings and letter blocks created by the author’s friend John Folley.
Verse and picture books about creatures real and mythical have noble pedigree, but this one stands out for the philosophical depth beneath its beguiling rhymes, rhythms and images – not to mention its awesome glossary and treasure hunt. Matthew acknowledges his debt to literary masters from Aesop and Plato through Chaucer, Shakespeare and Swift, to Lewis Carroll and Ogden Nash, among others.
At the beginning of a busy and exciting week he answered a few questions from MercatorNet.
Matthew Mehan: Mammals mean affection. They’re warm-blooded, fuzzy, and very social. Other animals are admired for their power, speed, grace, and beauty, but mammals are loved for how they love their young and each other. And we’re mammals too. We’re more than that, but we are that. If you want to laugh and learn more about who and what we humans are, you could do worse than consider a bit about what it means to be a mammal.
“The book that Hamlet should have read,” you say. How is that?
Well, Hamlet is a tragic leader, who destroys his kingdom and himself. And a big part of why he is the way he is, Shakespeare tells us, is the sorts of stories he fell in love with. Let’s just say, they taught him the wrong lessons about how to mind his head and his heart in good way. M5 tries to offer images that might help instead of hurt. Or as I put it the last poem, how do we gain “victory over the evil at heart? / Victory needs good friends and good art.” Bad art, like bad friends, can lead one away from happiness and truth. Hamlet had too little of the arts that would have saved Denmark. Instead, Hamlet and Denmark both rotted from the inside out.
Besides making fun, M5 obviously has a loftier purpose – how do you describe it?
The great Roman poet Horace said that poetry must both delight and instruct. M5 is much heavier on delight, but poetry does more than you think to help form both your head and your heart…if you let it.
What age group does it target?
I call it a family book. There are beautiful illustrations, funny mammals, and rhythm and rhyme, not to mention an alphabet game, all for the littles. There are fables and seek and find games, as well as more challenging and curious poems for middle grade readers. There are a number of levels of meaning in the poems and the glossary for high schoolers and beyond as well. I tried to write the book like Brad Bird writes his movie scripts: the adults will get the most out of it, but the kids will love it!
What is the best way to read Mehan’s Mammals?
Read it TO someone you love. Poems are special because of their auditory nature. The rhymes and rhythms of a poem are best heard and seen at the same time. But also, Mehan’s Mammals has a central theme: the Dally and the Blug build a friendship despite sadness and anxiety (and a few less happy mythical mammals!). Reading aloud is an act of friendship, a sharing of something. Mammals are social, remember?
Tell us more about these two characters who lead us through your bestiary. What do they represent?
The Dally is who the Dally is, but if he represents something in all of us, it’s our tendency to fall into sadness almost without noticing, even when we know we have the power, like the Dally, to skirt every tearful drop that’s plopped. The Blug, on the other hand, has a much sunnier disposition. Despite being a very fat and jolly mammal, he can also fly like a hot air balloon through the sky. In one sense the two friends are the tragic and the comic sensibility.
When and how did the idea for the book come to you?
One night, almost twenty years ago, I wanted to practice writing, because I’d learned about Christian Humanists like Thomas More and Erasmus, how they practiced literary arts in order to better communicate and help bring about peace in their countries. I sat down at my desk and wrote, “Among the pelting drops of rain, / The Dally can be seen again….” Years later, after I’d written The Ango, the Blug, and The Colvaino, I started to see an alphabet of mammals forming.
But it wasn’t until about 2007 when in grad school for Literature that I began to see how seemingly disconnected poems can be woven together to tell a story and make an image that might help our imaginations toward the good. In another sense, after reading and studying so much of our literary and philosophic riches, I wanted to share the wealth in a fun and silly way that wouldn’t burden anybody.
How much did it depend on your artist friend, John Folley?
John has made this whole work possible. I’d conceived of the idea and written half of it (and sketched out the frame for much of the rest) before I’d even met John, but I knew that beautiful, classically excellent, but also novel, artwork was a must for M5. John and I talked about the project for a long while, eating lunch together at The Heights School for years, discussing how we need to rekindle the arts in a humane direction.
We became friends over lunches and conversations. But we’ve become so much dearer friends through this shared labor of love. It’s not been easy to make this book a reality, and without our friendship we could never have so seamlessly blended the words and images together. I’m very grateful to him for believing in this work.
Did your family help you with the creatures and poems?
Yes. My littles were the alpha trial laboratory for my poems. And they even picked one or two of the looks for the mythical mammals in the paintings. One, a totally random shout out of a favorite fuzzy mammal, made its way into the look of one of the mammals, and it ended up reinforcing the poem’s theme in a way I’d not seen until they shouted it out. And my extended family did beta trials of the book with their kids as well. Collaborative art is the best kind of art!
You even have a lovely, original song about a real, endangered porpoise, the Vaquita. When did you get time to compose that?
Funny story: I was trying to keep to a writing schedule, the Vaquita poem was due to be finished, and my wife was in a wedding for the whole day. We’d gotten a sitter to let me go to work writing, but my one year old got the flu, so the sitter wasn’t coming. So for a whole day, I sat or walked holding a sick and feverish little toddler, singing to him.
After an hour of singing and rocking him, thinking the day lost and the writing schedule falling apart, I suddenly realized I could write a lullaby instead of the sort of poem I’d originally intended. So I worked out loud all day, rocking, humming, composing, singing to my poor little son. That’s how the Las Vaquitas Lullaby came to be. I’d prepared a lot of ideas, so I had a lot of kindling and scrap iron to work with, but what came out of the forge was something very different than I’d originally intended.
The glossary is an education in itself – exactly as you intended, no doubt…
Yes. The glossary is for curious readers who want to learn more and more about the different mammals, about words and poetry, about the liberal arts, and, with a little luck, they might learn a bit more about themselves and what it means to be truly human. Adults—the more serious, nerdy kind—can read the glossary straight through, and you might be surprised to hear that it works as a kind of epigrammatic work all its own, albeit an unusual one.
Your children are still young – will you have to come up with some more mythical creatures for bedtime stories?
I have quite a few more characters in my bedtime story repertoire than those that made it into Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals. I’d tell you about them, but then I’d spoil the surprise if they ever became books too!