It may seem odd that a college professor would write a children’s book, but that’s how Matthew Mehan, The Worsham Teaching Fellow of Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr., Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C., has been spending his spare time for the past few years.
The result of his labors, “Mr. Mehan’s Mildly Amusing Mythical Mammals,” is as much a mouthful as the book’s title and its author’s job title suggest. An alphabetical appended with a generous appendix, M5 recounts the journey of the Dally (a dog-like creature with neckties for ears) and the Blug (a jolly balloon of a mammal who flies around with wings the size of a kidney bean) as they take a tour of Mehan’s fantastic bestiary.
But M5 is not a frivolous venture. As the Dally and the Blug wind their way from A to Z, they meet the Evol, an eyeless ape who seduces the Dally to misanthropy, by convincing him that the world holds no love for the joyful. Throughout the rest of the book, the Blug leads the Dally through a cast of mammals that teach him — either through positive example or via negative — the essential untruth of the Evol’s beliefs.
The result is something between Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” and Erasmus’ “Education of a Christian Prince.” Mehan entertains, but ultimately teaches his readers about virtue and rhetoric as well as love for the souls of their fellow men. The first poem is typical of his mix of humor and didacticism. It features the Angogrobugunkalungstis (Ango for short), a creature “only loved by utter dunces who like to use long Latin words, when pointing out the plainest birds.” The poem is a tongue-twister, but its thrust is simple: Use short words when you can.
Mehan fills his whole project with lessons and witticisms. He warns readers to keep away from technical speech in “The Jargontalky,” a direct parody of Lewis Carroll’s “The Jabberwocky.” He echoes Tennyson’s melodramatic “The Kraken” with “The Lundregun,” (a beast named after one of his former high school students). He riffs on the haiku form with the onomatopoeic “A Few Hai-chus.” The whole book does well to introduce young readers to the classical mainstays of English poetry.
But the best of all the poems is a completely original political satire: “The Noble Myth of the Urnaz King of the Beasts,” which contains this hilarious set of lines: “O unassayable assizer!/Your assoting asterism/O aseptic, assumental/master of asteism!/O arsis, O astheny!/O Urnaz, you are an astrogeny.” The words’ meaning here may be elusive, but don’t worry. Read it aloud; if you ever went to the seventh grade, you’ll laugh.
But I shouldn’t go on: Read the whole book. And then, read it again. Like everything nuanced, M5 takes a few tries to really appreciate.
But, before you begin (and then begin again), read Mehan’s notes at the beginning. They’ll let you know just what sort of author you have in your hands.
I’ve reproduced them here:
A Note to All Children Readers
Good, good! Warm welcome to you all! I want to tell you that there is — it’s true! — a very best way to read these mildly amusing mythical mammals. Read them to someone you love. Many of these mammals are funny, and some of them are scary. And the first of them has a name that is fairly impossible to say. You and whomever you are reading to can crack each other up and flub the funky words, or turn the page and say, “That one’s for the birds!” And in the back of the book, you can find a few games and a glossary, for names and words you might not know. I even put the word “glossary” in the glossary, just for show. Read well! And listen carefully.
Note to All Adult Readers
(The Fine Print)
We all love lions, but we all hate pride. “Adult” readers may well be denied. I suggest you try your best to become a child once more. Doing so will bring you through poetry’s locked door. Now. When you’re ready, hold the book steady, raise your eyes from here, then reread the note that’s truly true, the one to All Children Readers, which you thought perhaps, was not addressed to you?
Join Matthew Mehan at his upcoming lecture ‘Poetry: A Liberal Art of Leadership and Self-Government’ on Thursday, Sep. 13 at 4 – 5:30 p.m. in Kendall 233. Book reception and discussion follows the lecture at Rough Draft Coffeehouse from 6 – 8 p.m. Refreshments provided.