Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mother Goose in Flight

At least two new Mother Goose books hit the market this year, both of them bringing a fresh take on what you might have thought was a worn-out corner of children's book real estate. The Green Mother Goose: Saving the World One Rhyme at a Time by David Davis and Jan Peck, with illustrations by Carin Berger, goes environmental on the good old goose's tail feathers, while Nursery Rhyme Comics is a compilation illustrated by "50 Celebrated Cartoonists."

The Green Mother Goose by David Davis and Jan Peck, illustrations by Carin Berger

The Green Mother Goose authors replace every well-known rhyme in their anthology with an environmentally oriented version. Here are a few examples.

We read of Old Mother Hubbard:
She markets today
With cloth shopping bags,
And when she gets home
Her dog is all wags!

Little Jack Horner has lost his interest in plums:
Little Jack Horner
Changed bulbs in the corner,
Replacing the old incandescents.
Now the lamps on the sills
Cut his mama's high bills,
'Cause the lights are
all compact fluorescent.

Meet Mary, now two different girls:
Mary, Mary quite contrary,
Refused to garden green.
Her toxic sprays, a choking haze,
Spreading dangers, hurtful and mean.

Organic Mary, not contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With ladybug smiles and compost piles,
And pretty herbs all in a row.

The collage illustrations are as fresh as organic vegetables, remarkably well suited to this collection of poems. Visit Berger's website for a look at more of her work.

As you can see from the examples, the rhymes are a little uneven. And if you are not up for didacticism, don't bother. The book, which came out in time for Earth Day 2011, is laden with overt messages about environmentalism. If you're an elementary school teacher or parent trying to teach your kids how to save the planet, you might want to add The Green Mother Goose to your repertoire. If, however, you're a big fan of the originals and don't want your nursery rhymes diluted with such a tightly focused message, you might want to give this book a pass.

Nursery Rhyme Comics, illustrated by 50 artists, with an introduction by Leonard S. Marcus

Like The Chronicles of Harris Burdick, which I reviewed last week, this collection strikes me as being just as much for adults as for children, if not more so.

It's a great premise, actually—sign up a posse of renowned comic book illustrators to reinterpret the Mother Goose rhymes. Throw in an intro by children's literature expert Leonard Marcus while you're at it, and you've got a veritable collectors' item.

And you do, truly. But is it a book for what we consider today to be the primary audience for these rhymes, 3- to 5-year-olds? Perhaps not. The small panels and sometimes less-than-cute characterizations would seem to give this book more appeal for the 6-to-8 crowd, frankly. Oh, and for a whole bunch of adults. Yeah, I suspect it's mostly for them!

That said, this is a very cool book. One advantage of getting these illustrators on board, most of them outsiders when it comes to children's literature, is that they bring a fresh eye to material that may be have been overdone by insiders. Not that their takes on the rhymes all work from where I'm standing. But it's a lot of fun to see what the newcomers have done with these iconic rhymes.

For example, when Patrick McDonnell's "donkey, old and gray," begins to "blow [his] horn," he whips out a saxophone, startling a sleeping bird on a branch. Stephanie Yue's "Hickory, Dickory, Dock" mouse turns out to be a medieval-looking critter who runs clear up a clock tower to strike the clock himself. He then descends by using his red kerchief as a parachute. James Sturm's nimble Jack follows the new trend for breaking the fourth wall, addressing his audience angrily in response to the rhyme's apparent directive, "Jack jump over the candlestick.": "What?! You must think I'm pretty stupid! Why don't you jump over a candlestick! Like I would do such a thing." He goes off, muttering, "You're crazy! Putting ideas like that in a kid's head. I'm going home." Then there's a nice twist at the end.

Much of the artwork is stunning. "If All the Seas Were One Sea" has tended to be illustrated rather insipidly in past compilations, but here we get a color-drenched cartoon hemisphere bearing a gigantic lumberjack who wields his axe to fell the world's biggest tree. (The axe and the stars alike have voice bubbles blithely announcing, "Twinkle!" or "Sparkle!")

As you might expect from the comic book crowd, most of these illustrators take full advantage of the storytelling possibilities the rhymes present. Eleanor Davis gives us the tale of "The Queen of Tarts" on a spread with 12 panels that are tied together by their placement in the framework of a large castle and its grounds. Richard Thompson's "There Was an Old Woman Tossed Up in a Basket" adds a young assistant and a device called an Old Lady Launcher. (I'll bet Acme holds the patent.)

This collection is marvelous; just don't expect it to appeal to the very youngest lap readers. For them, we should take a look at some standout versions over the years.

No, wait—first let's visit the Opies. In case you don't know, Iona and Peter Opie were a husband-and-wife team of British folklorists who studied nursery rhymes and other children's literature. (Peter has passed away, but I believe Iona is still alive, though retired.) Their compilations are considered to be scholarly; some are kid friendly, too. The Opie Book of Nursery Rhymes, illustrated by Pauline Baynes (who also illustrated the Narnia series), seems to be designed for 7- to 9-year-olds, perhaps as a classroom read-aloud, but Tail Feathers from Mother Goose: The Opie Rhyme Book is another story, with its gorgeously fun artwork by a number of well-known (mostly British) illustrators. They include Shirley Hughes, Jan Ormerod, Chris Riddell, Colin McNaughton, Angela Barrett, John Birmingham, Marc Brown, Errol Le Cain, Helen Oxenbury, and Quentin Blake, among others. The book is perfect for lap readers and has the intriguing advantage of deliberately focusing on less familiar rhymes. (It was published as a fundraiser for the Opies' large collection of early children's literature, which was donated to Oxford University's Bodleian Library.) See Maurice Sendak's cover illustration, shown above right.

If you're interested in the history of nursery rhymes, try The Annotated Mother Goose, with notes by William S. Baring-Gould and Ceil Baring-Gould. Baring-Gould is best known as a Sherlock Holmes scholar, but he and his wife published this Mother Goose volume together, and it's just fascinating. (I first ran across it at my grandmother's house. Later I tracked down a copy for myself.) For instance, did you know that Edward Lear attributed his limerick career to a nursery rhyme that's a limerick?
There was an old woman of Norwich,
Who lived upon nothing but porridge;
Parading the town,
She turned cloak into gown,
The thrifty old woman of Norwich.

Then there's the April Fool's tradition. The annotators tell us that it used to be people only played jokes until noon on April Fool's Day. Those who tried it in the afternoon could be told:
April-fool time's past and gone,
You're the fool, and I am none.

You may have heard that some of the rhymes have political meanings, but it turns out "Humpty Dumpty" is not one of them. Instead it is a riddle that may be thousands of years old.

The book divides the rhymes into groups like "Lullabies and Game Songs," "Charms, Auguries, and Nature Lore," and my favorite, ""Some That Came Later That Might Have Come Before." The volume includes many rhymes you probably haven't heard—here's one of the charms, intended to help a bewitched cow give up its milk:
Cushy cow, bonny, let down thy milk,
And I will give thee a gown of silk;
A gown of silk and a silver tee,
If thou wilt let down thy milk to me.

But what about Mother Goose for toddlers, you may ask? Of course, you have a lot of options. The Real Mother Goose, with illustrations by Blanche Fisher Wright, was first published by Rand McNally in 1916 and has been in print ever since. It's currently available as a Dover edition. (I just discovered I acquired it in its 75th printing, in 1983!) The old-fashioned illustrations seem to fit these traditional rhymes, and there's the comfort factor, as well, since many of us grew up with this edition.

My own favorite version resulted from the happy pairing of the highly esteemed Iona Opie and the greatly esteemed Rosemary Wells, who together created My Very First Mother Goose and Here Comes Mother Goose. The books feature Wells' signature bunnies and kitties and the rhymes are set in a nice big font. The artwork itself is large and simple, yet active and engaging. In short, these are the perfect books for toddlers and kindergartners. I am especially fond of the use of pure, simple colors and textured elements.

By the way, you may have heard that a Boston woman named Elizabeth (or Mary) Goose was the origin of the Mother Goose figure, but the tradition actually goes back farther than that, and into different countries. According to the great Iona Opie, this story is simply that—another story associated with the rhymes.

A few other Mother Goose editions are worth mentioning: Mary Engelbreit's, which I find stiff and decorative, though the strong colors are a plus; Gyo Fujikawa's, which is delightful, sweet without being saccharine; Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever, which has the best "Jack Be Nimble" ever, among other great renditions; and Favorite Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose, illustrated by Scott Gustafson, which has a classic feel, lovely and placid.

An actual classic would be Kate Greenaway's 1881 edition. Yep, it's still in print. See art above right (presumably Miss Muffet).

Or look for the Jesse Willcox Smith edition from 1914, which is available to this day, as well. Her illustrations sometimes cross the line from sweet to saccharine, but they're very pretty nonetheless.

Jumping back to the present, I will just mention two additional variations on the Mother Goose tradition. In 2009, boy book expert and children's book author Jon Scieszka came out with Truckery Rhymes, in which the characters in the Mother Goose tradition all become trucks and cars. This book is associated with the Trucktown series, illustrated by David Shannon, Loren Long, and David Gordon. See my review here. Suffice it to say, little boys will probably get a kick out of this one. (I remember back in the days when my younger brother was one or two—he used to pound my dad's shoulder when we were out driving, pointing at every truck or car in sight and shrieking "Beece! Beece!" Which meant "bus," of course.)

Of course, in the case of any parody variation, it's a good idea to read the original rhymes with your children or students first. Then they'll be in on the joke.

One interesting recent offering is Mother Goose: Numbers on the Loose by Leo and Diane Dillon. This famed husband-and-wife pair of artists anthologized nursery rhymes with numbers in them, illustrating them beautifully, as always.

Then there are the books I want to get my hands on: Salley Mavor's fabric relief variation, Pocketful of Posies; Kady MacDonald Denton's A Child's Treasury of Nursery Rhymes (Have you seen her illustrations for Bonny Becker's A Visitor for Bear?); and Sylvia Long's Mother Goose (Her illustrations for Dianna Hutts Aston's books An Egg Is Quiet, A Seed Is Sleepy, and A Butterfly Is Patient are really something.).

But if you can only get one Mother Goose book for an actual child who's three or four, stick with My Very First Mother Goose by Iona Opie and Rosemary Wells or Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever. The facial expressions of the characters alone are worth the price of admission!

Note: I requested a copy of Nursery Rhyme Comics from the Amazon Vine program.

Update: I found
James Marshall's Mother Goose at the library today, as well as a third (smaller) Opie-Wells collection of more obscure rhymes, Mother Goose's Little Treasures.


Anonymous said...

Oh, the Richard Scarry was my FAVORITE Mother Goose! I've been so frustrated as an adult because I haven't been able to find a Mother Goose collection I love as well as The One I Remembered, but now I see that it's actually The Best Mother Goose Ever and I shall never settle for less again...

KateCoombs said...

I can't remember having Richard Scarry's Mother Goose in our house, but my car-crazy little brother loved his Cars and Trucks and Things That Go!