Rethinking Mother Goose

April 30, 2013 § 3 Comments

Mother GooseA customer once said to me, “Nursery rhymes are what parents used to have to read before better books were written.” A bit harsh, maybe, but there was a time when I could very much relate to this sentiment. With my firstborn, I quickly passed up Mother Goose in favor of reading him plot-driven stories featuring animals (my choice) or construction vehicles (his choice) or Richard Scarry (our compromise).

But then my daughter was born and my opinion of these verses—albeit old-fashioned, nonsensical, and odd—changed. Emily was born with an ear for music; she hears a song once and weeks later she’s belting out a bastardized version from her bed. Early on, her musical predisposition translated to reading material. The two Mother Goose board books on our shelves, whose spines were barely cracked by her brother, became Emily’s prized possessions (the better of the two being Tomie dePaola’s Tomie’s Little Mother Goose).

Many nursery rhymes lend themselves to singing, which was clearly part of the initial appeal for Em (“Baa Baa Black Sheep” is still a favorite), but in time she’s become equally mesmerized by ones that aren’t easily sung (like “One, Two Buckle my Shoe”). Actually, literacy experts say we as parents should encourage our children to read nursery rhymes (or other rhyming poetry) from an early age: such word play creates an awareness of linguistic sounds and word endings that later translates into learning to read with greater ease and success down the road. (Don’t feel bad if you, like me, missed the boat on this for an earlier child; simply break out some Shel Silverstein at four, five, or six and watch their awareness of language transform before your eyes.)

As Emily’s love of sing-songy language continues to grow, I’ve stopped bemoaning the strangeness of Mother Goose and started enjoying the way the words roll off my tongue—and the way Emily quickly begins to anticipate and fill in the endings of each line. As such, we have graduated from our abridged board books and delved into the Treasury of all Treasuries: The Original Mother Goose, a reprinting of the 1916 classic, featuring a beautiful purple cloth cover and many of Blanche Fisher Wright’s original illustrations (incidentally, this makes a wonderful unisex baby shower gift if you are a traditionalist). Last year, while I was helping my mom downsize her apartment, I came across her own tattered copy of this same anthology; how often do we get to share with our kids something that their grandparents remember looking at when they were kids?

With over 300 nursery rhymes, this anthology is obviously too much for one sitting (too much for me—not my daughter—just to be clear), but therein lies the fun: Emily loves to take her finger and point to which rhyme she wants to hear from a page (ah, the power of choice). I discreetly avoid the blatantly offensive ones (“Peter Piper Had a Wife and Couldn’t Keep Her”—seriously?), because I have to draw the line somewhere. But we giggle, we talk in silly voices, and at two and a half, Emily’s love affair with language is in full swing. She marches around the house making up her own rhymes, stringing together “poop” “goop” “soup” “loop” (the fact that many of her rhymes begin with a potty word is owing to having an older brother). I probably won’t be too sorry when we close the cover of Mother Goose for good, but I will definitely miss her wide-eared enchantment.

Warning: a love of Mother Goose can quickly, suddenly transform into a Big-Time Obsession with Dr. Seuss for all the same reasons. You may find your child demanding that you read the equally nonsensical and often interminable One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish nine or ten times a day (you may find yourself hiding said book from said child)…but that’s a post for another day.

Other Favorite Nursery Rhyme Anthologies:
Richard Scarry’s Best Mother Goose Ever, by Richard Scarry (Ages 2-4)
Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose, by Tomie dePaola (Ages 2-4) (there is also the abridged board book mentioned above)
Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young, by Jack Prelutsky & Marc Brown (Ages 2-5; not traditional Mother Goose rhymes but very Mother Goose-esque with contemporary vocab and great humor)

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§ 3 Responses to Rethinking Mother Goose

  • Tricia says:

    But have you tried Father Gander’s Nursery Rhymes? Sometimes a bit over the top in a pc way but much less violent. Or the NEW Adventures of Mother Goose. “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick. Jill be nimble, do it too. If Jack can do it so can you!” A much better message for our sons and daughters.

    • Hi Tricia! Thanks so much for writing. I completely agree about the sexism and violence inherent in many Mother Goose rhymes (like I said, there are several rhymes that I simply won’t read aloud on principle); but most strike me as just plain odd and it’s those that I’ve embraced because the word play is catchy and fun (and most have a musical tune that I already know). I also agree that many of the newer “re-writes” of Mother Goose (trying to contemporize the language and remove the sexism) come off as a bit forced and over the top (plus many of them lack the rhythm and catchy-ness that the originals are so famous for). That’s why I LOVE Jack Prelutsky’s “Read Aloud Rhymes For the Very Young” (which I mention at the end of the post). There you get the skillful mastery of a poet like Prelutsky (fun rhymes, catchy beat) but in a contemporary context. The Mother Goose of the 21st century! 🙂

  • But have you considered how sexist and violent Mother Goose is when read through modern eyes. I recommend The New Adventures of Mother Goose. Here is a sample of the revised version of one familiar story:

    Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick.
    Jill be nimble, do it too, if Jack can do it, so can you.

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