An Early Foray into Kiddie Lit

It’s inevitable that I’ll be steeped in children’s literature over the next several years, so I’m taking it slow and resisting the urge to read ahead. There’s stuff on the shelf that I’m eager to look at, like Frog Went A’Courtin’ and The Story of Frog Belly Rat Bone, but I figure Ella will want that stuff read to her plenty when she reaches the right age, so no sense in getting my fill of it now.

This means that my current exposure is limited to board books. Ella doesn’t exactly take a literary approach to them yet, but neither does she view them solely as chew toys. Heck, I don’t know if she’s even paying attention to the pictures, but she does enjoy the ritual of page turning accompanied by the cadence of my voice. The thing is, even if she’s not particularly picky yet, I am—I have to read the dang stuff. Our self-selected board books (like Seuss and Boynton—more on her later) are fine, but amid the gifts and other random acquisitions are many, many duds. The following is not an exhaustive list of problematic material, merely some examples that illustrate the most common problems:

Rub-a-dub, Pooh—This square, squat little book features the Disneyfied versions of the characters playing in a puddle and engaging in related hilarity. I prefer Ernest Shepard’s drawings, but that’s not the issue here. Turn on your poetry ear and read the following lines:

Rooh and Pooh
just love to play!
Jumping in
puddles is fun . . .

When Roo asks Pooh
to spend the night,
there’s washing-up
to be done!

Apparently, when it comes to kids, meter only matters in the first half of each stanza. It’s not like I’m looking for the supple iambs of a good sonnet, here, just adherence to a basic pattern of stresses. But apparently the author can’t be bothered to muster the effort.

Curious George’s “Are You Curious?”—I pulled this one off the shelf one day full of hope, because hey, Curious George rocks. But this little board book is little more than a lame attempt to spin some more money off the property. It features illustrations from the classic books, each one accompanied (without even an attempt at verse) by questions: Are you curious? Are you hungry? Are you dizzy? No coherence, no story. The last thing I want to do is spoil Ella’s first exposure to those fine illustrations by presenting them out of any meaningful context.

Classic Nursery Rhymes—This little monstrosity is a box containing six square board books and a CD. Apparently, “If You’re Happy and You Know It” now counts as a classic nursery rhyme, but that’s a minor offense. Their version of “Humpty Dumpty” features some competent drawings, but right when you get to the failure of all the king’s horses and men, the tale goes on! The next pages contain (I am not making this up):

Along came the children
with brushes and glue
And stuck him together
as good as new

Well, it scans until the fourth line, let’s give it that. But it also demolishes all the bite of the original. I will never understand this persistent desire to eradicate tragedy and sorrow from nursery rhymes, folk tales, and children’s literature in general. What do people think they’re shielding them from? Kids get the fact that bad things happen in the world easily enough, and the most morbid folk tale has nothing on what they’re able to imagine lurking under the bed all by themselves.

Humpty Dumpty has an illustrious history. Here’s a plausible-sounding explanation for its origin:

Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon during the English Civil War (1642-49).
It was mounted on top of the St Mary’s at the Wall Church in Colchester defending the city against siege in the summer of 1648. (Although Colchester was a Parliamentarian stronghold, it had been captured by the Royalists and they held it for 11 weeks.) The church tower was hit by the enemy and the top of the tower was blown off, sending “Humpty” tumbling to the ground. Naturally the King’s men tried to mend him but in vain. NB: The “men” would have been infantry, and “horses” the cavalry troops.

Our image of the jauntily clad egg-man, though, we owe to Lewis Carroll.

`What a beautiful belt you’ve got on!’ Alice suddenly remarked … `At least,’ she corrected herself on second thoughts, `a beautiful cravat, I should have said—no, a belt, I mean—I beg your pardon!’ she added in dismay, for Humpty Dumpty looked thoroughly offended, and she began to wish she hadn’t chosen that subject. `If only I knew,’ she thought to herself, `which was neck and which was waist!’

Evidently Humpty Dumpty was very angry, though he said nothing for a minute or two. When he did speak again, it was in a deep growl.

`It is a—most—provoking—thing,’ he said at last, `when a person doesn’t know a cravat from a belt!’

Such a gloss on the original is expected and even welcome, but the senseless addition of the kiddie repair brigade only does damage to the evolution of the Humpty legend. And anyway—what exactly are they supposed to accomplish with brushes?

The box’s take on “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” is another travesty. Everyone knows the basic stanza of the real version, but for fun, here’s the whole thing:

All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey thought ‘twas all in fun.
Pop! goes the weasel.

A penny for a spool of thread,
A penny for a needle.
That’s the way the money goes.
Pop! goes the weasel.

Up and down the City Road,
In and out of the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes.
Pop! goes the weasel.

Half a pound of tuppenney rice,
Half a pound of treacle,
Mix it up and make it nice,
Pop! goes the weasel.

Like Humpty Dumpty, this nursery rhyme has an interesting history. But here are the first couple stanzas of the version in the box set:

Here we go round the mulberry bush
The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush
Here we go round the mulberry bush
On a cold and frosty morning

This is the way we jump about
Jump about, jump about
This is the way we jump about
On a cold and frosty morning

UPDATE: The following rant loses some of its punch given that, as I have been reliably informed by a couple different people, we’re talking about two completely different songs here, with two different tunes, that happen to share a reference to a mulberry bush. My bad. I still think the weasel version is a much better nursery rhyme. It’s awfully weird that I’ve never heard of the other one, though.

UPDATE CONTINUED: Special thanks to alert reader TM, who not only pointed out the error of my ways but also emailed some links to the background of the “Here We Go Round” mulberry song: here and here.

Now, judging from a quick Google search, this version is commonly found elsewhere as well. But that doesn’t make it OK! The annoying repetition is a poor substitute for the original content. I guess the idea is to make a nursery rhyme that kids can participate in, but there are plenty such verses out there already. I can see some well-meaning but deluded parent exclaiming, “But ‘pop goes the weasel’ doesn’t even mean anything!” To which I say: Phooey! Not only is there a long tradition of glorious nonsense in children’s verse, but kids are no doubt taking plenty of the sensible stuff as nonsense too, and are perfectly happy to do so.

There are rays of hope out there, though. Hippos Go Berserk, by Sandra Boynton, is a modern classic, and But Not the Hippopotamus is excellent as well. These books get it all right: fine illlustration, deft verse, a happy world tinged with sadness, and, c’mon, hippos! They’re also Ella’s favorites—probably not because of her discerning taste just yet, but because she picks up on the irrepressible glee I take in reading them. Maintaining that glee as she gets older is possible, but it won’t be easy—it will require constant vigilance against books that suck. There are worse jobs.