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.