Once Upon a Tomb: Gravely Humorous Verses
By J. Patrick Lewis; illustrated by Simon Bartram
32 pp.; ISBN: 0763618373
Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews
Tempering the serious subject of death with jokes, puns, and just plain poking fun, J. Patrick Lewis' collection of poems, Once Upon a Tomb: Gravely Humorous Verses is a lighthearted compilation of the epitaphs of almost two dozen unfortunate souls.
Lewis, who has written dozens of children's books, has a sharp wit that spares no profession -- from schoolteacher to tattoo artist, fisherman to dairy farmer, know-it-all to underwear salesman -- his poetry skewers the stereotypes, makes light of the assumptions, and packs more puns than a bread truck.
From brief (for the mailman, merely "Returned to Sender") to epic -- well, maybe not epic, but the dairy farmer does get 15 lines -- the poems in Once Upon a Tomb are highly entertaining. None take up more than one page, making it easy for kids, especially reluctant readers, to dip into the book at any point, rather than having to start at the beginning and read all the way through. Giving kids a language workout, the book serves as a fun, seasonal read in the run up to Halloween, and doubles as an effortless introduction to poetry.
While the subject matter may be a bit unsettling for grownups, it has the potential for broad appeal for kids -- whether they're genuinely intrigued by the subject matter or just want to freak out their parents. Once Upon a Tomb can be fun as a read-together book for parents and children or as a read-aloud book in a group setting. Young readers probably won't "get" some of the humor -- textual or visual -- and some may end up asking more questions than anything else ("Mom, why does it look like she is sleeping in that box?") but elementary school-aged kids should be at just the right age, laughing heartily at the flawed characters receiving their unexpectedly just desserts.
Simon Bartram's (Man on the Moon (A Day in the Life of Bob)) accompanying illustrations done in bright acrylic paint are a perfect match for Lewis' work. He is able to maintain the light and innocent poking-fun style that Lewis establishes with his writing. Bartram's tongue-in-cheek art will produce giggles and smiles as it reflects perfectly the deceased's profession, habits, or untimely end -- for example, the underwear salesman is remembered by black underwear clad mourners. The cow that crushed the dairy farmer is depicted with such a menacing look, it's a wonder that the poor farmer didn't meet his flat ending sooner.
For kids who are over the traditional Halloween thing -- whether they think they're too old for it or have just seen too many books with ghosts, ghouls, goblins, and jack o'lanterns over the years -- Lewis' Once Upon a Tomb is a good alternative. It fits with the seasonal Halloween theme without being too babyish or too ghoulish.
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