Farewell to Poetry Month with
(Who Else But) Mama Goose…

h1 April 30th, 2009 by jules

Well. It’s the last day of April, folks. Though I’m a big believer in poetry every day of the year, I’ll miss National Poetry Month 2009. I thought we’d say goodbye to it with the one and only matron of children’s literature, Mother Goose.

There are a whole slew, to be precise, of Mother Goose collections out there. And, by all means, if you want to know the weird and wonderful stories behind how these weird and wonderful rhymes came about, pick up a copy of Chris Roberts’ entertaining Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme (first published in 2004 by Granta Books). I blogged about it here, back in the Dark, Dark Times When Our Images Were Lamentably Small.

As I mentioned back then: Heavy Words Lightly Thrown is a raucous and very fun read. And you gotta love a book that takes its title from a Smiths’ song anyway. Who knew that the lullaby “Rock-a-bye, baby” (pictured left as British author and illustrator Tony Ross illustrated it) could be a warning about hubris? And that “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” above, is all about taxation? And that one saucy explanation for “Jack and Jill” is:

. . . that “up the hill to fetch a pail of water” is actually a euphemism for having sex and that “losing your crown” means losing your virginity . . . So here you have a rhyme about a young couple slipping off for a bit of “slap and tickle” and the regrets that come later.

Ooo la la, mes amis!

Back to Tony Ross and the world’s increasing collection of Mother Goose anthologies: Just this month, Henry Holt released Ross’ Three Little Kittens: And Other Favorite Nursery Rhymes, originally published in Great Britain in 2007. There is an offbeat humor to Tony’s art that I like — and, I can’t deny, a slight Quentin-Blake vibe. He also doesn’t shy away from the macabre, as you can see here below. I mean, that one is about a plague. Hence, the collapsed children, burning village, and ominous bird:

This isn’t a slim collection: Ross has illustrated forty-nine classic rhymes here, some more well-known than others. (He also selected the entries.) He book-ends the collection with the wee tale of a young girl asking her Grandad to tell her a story, “not a made-up one. One about real things.” Telling her he doesn’t know any stories about real things, he adds, “but I do have this book of nursery rhymes. Some of those are about real things, real things that happened many years ago…”

So, as we say farewell to National Poetry Month with the grand dame of poetry, Mama Goose, we’ll do so with some of Tony’s art work and Mama’s stories. I’m not including “Wee Willie Winkie” in this post, but might I suggest you (grown-ups) read Margo Lanagan’s “Winkie” from Red Spikes (2007), a horror fantasy short story borne from the nursery rhyme, but ONLY IF YOU WANT TO GET SCARED RIGHT OUT OF YOUR PANTS and possibly have your nightmares taken care of for the next decade or so. I still laugh at the comment Farida left at the post in which Eisha and I co-reviewed Red Spikes (back in ’07): “‘Wee Willie Winkie’ has been my least favorite nursery rhyme ever since I was a child — who was this Winkie character anyway, and why was he rapping at the windows telling children to be in bed? It was none of his business what time I went to bed!” Well-said, Farida. Well-said.

Happy Poetry Month to all . . .

* * * * * * *

THREE LITTLE KITTENS: AND OTHER FAVORITE NURSERY RHYMES © 2009 Tony Ross. Published by Henry Holt and Company, New York. Images used with permission of publisher. All rights reserved.

11 comments to “Farewell to Poetry Month with
(Who Else But) Mama Goose…”

  1. What a beautiful, wonderful way to end the month!

  2. Ooh, the illustrations are Quentin Blake-esque! Like that!
    I love the knowledge behind these things; I really should get that Heavy Words book. Thanks for the reminder.

    I’ll be humming Baa Baa Black Sheep all day now. sigh

  3. Tanita: My current humming is entirely your fault, since my brainradio initially seized on Hey-Diddle-Diddle, but has switched.

    I really enjoyed HEAVY WORDS LIGHTLY THROWN, and the illustrations you provided today (will look for it – they’re great!)

    And Lanagan’s Winkie? *shivers* So well done, but so scare-the-crap-out-of-you horrifying.

  4. I love to read the backstories of nursery rhymes. They are indeed surprising, often political and sometimes bawdy.

    Once again, you are my psychic twin — for as I was writing my PF post for tomorrow, I mentioned Mother Goose (May 1 is Mother Goose Day)! and I was singing the Ring a around the rosies rhyme in my head all day yesterday.

    The spreads are a treat. Yes, definitely a Quentin Blake vibe going on . . .

  5. Ha ha! Yes, Wee Willie Winkie still is my least favorite rhyme. If I bring Heavy Words Lightly Thrown home from the library, I may have to hide it from my daughter. She can’t read, but how am I going to explain the pictures? By the way, there is a wide variety of wha the nursery rhymes “really” mean, and some of the explanations are folklore. “Ring a Round a Rosy” is often thought to be about the plague, it didn’t show up until 500 years after the plague ended. What’s so cool about these rhymes is, regardless of how they started and what they allegedly really mean, is that one can read a lot of things into them. My daughter’s parent-tot teacher told wonderful, simple stories based on the nursery rhymes using knitted animals and dolls, silks and natural materials.


  6. Gee, but those sheep and kittens are cuuuuuute! 🙂

    The intersection of “children’s books” and the macabre is a subject probably due its own book. (Somebody’s probably already done it, in fact.) But yeah, when The Niece and Nephews were little ones, their mothers sometimes winced visibly to find what was obviously a kid’s book wrapped beneath the Christmas tree and bearing Uncle JES’s name on the label.

    Thanks for including the reference to Margo Lanagan, whom I’ve just blown almost an hour reading up on and getting all worked up over. From a review in Locus of her novel Tender Morsels, which is up for this year’s Shirley Jackson Award for “achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.”:

    …the brutal intensity of the novel’s more graphic bits is a necessary counterbalance to a tale that somehow manages to end on a note of almost astonishing sweetness.


  7. Funny you should say that, John. I just finished Tender Morsels, and Eisha and I talked about co-reviewing it one day at the ol’ blawg.

    It was also a 2009 Printz Honor Book. It’s an intense read.

  8. I love Ross’s work on Paula Danziger’s Amber Brown series, and I love the looks of this, too. And here’s YET ANOTHER book the British got before we did, along with every single book published by Emily Gravett. It’s hardly fair.

  9. The cover makes me laugh, too, I should have added. The three little kittens: BUSTED.

  10. If I had only known the TRUE meaning behind “Jack and Jill” after being taunted endlessly with that poem as a child, I might have reacted very differently! Of course, I was a bit young to “lose my crown”. Thanks for clearing that up for me, Jules!

  11. Jill, you’d think those teasing kids could have been more original, huh? Yeesh. I’m sure that got old.

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