Like many of the young children who heard A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travellers by Nancy Willard as a bedtime story, I have never read any work by Blake. Nevertheless, the child in me found the book’s poems delightful while my college student-self marveled at Willard’s literary prowess. In 1981, the illustrations, by Alice and Martin Provensen, received a Caldecott Honor while the book itself won the Newberry Medal – the first Caldecott honoree to do so. The drawings reflect the book’s playful and imaginative tone, while the poems themselves depict a wondrous world full of dragons, angels, and characters such as the Man in the Marmalade Hat and the King of Cats. Parents and children will be able to enjoy this book together thanks to Willard’s attention to detail and the extravagant world she creates.
In entering the book, the reader is taken on a journey through William Blake’s inn along with a young resident. Before even entering the inn Willard makes it clear that the world in her book is certainly not the same one Blake lived on. “Blake’s Celestial Limousine” carries us to the inn. After shrinking his large luggage down to the size of a small envelope, the young narrator declares, “Uneasily I stepped inside/ and found the seats so green and wide,/ the grass so soft, the view so far/ it scarcely could be called a car,/ rather a wish that only flew when I climbed in and found it true.” The author’s message is clear: anything you read in this book can be true if only you believe it to be so.
Several different poems describe a day in the life at Blake’s inn. The sun and the moon interact freely with other guests, who can proudly proclaim themselves to be rabbits, tigers, and bears. At one point, Blake leads several guests through a walk on the Milky Way. The rabbit, cat, tiger, and young boy all marvel at the stars surrounding them while the rat grumpily says that he should have stayed in bed. Blake responds by giving “silver stars to the rabbit/ and golden stars to the cat/ and emerald stars to the tiger and me/ but a handful of dirt to the rat.” Again, the author is imploring her reader to suspend his or her disbelief and travel along with Blake on his magical journey.
The book opens with an introduction by the author. She tells the story of how she was introduced to the poems of William Blake, and, while she does not say it explicitly, it is obvious that she hopes her book will be the spark kids need to find Blake themselves. I myself intend to immediately find myself copies of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in order to not only understand the literary techniques used by the author (English geek that I am), but to experience the same wonder that inspired her to create such an intricate and welcoming world.
– Allia Calkins (2016)