Sunday, July 6, 2008

Mother Goose

For many, if not most people in the English-speaking world, Mother Goose is the first doorway into reading, introduced anywhere between two and six years of age. It is where we learn the rhythms and rhymes of the English language and, through that familiarity, begin to navigate out into the odd and uncertain deeps of one of the most gloriously ramshackle languages on earth. Mother Goose introduces us and helps us to become accustomed to the oddities of the language. What is Mother Goose and where did she come from? Why is it that for more than three hundred years, the Mother Goose nursery rhymes have played such an enduring part in the English language and in the teaching of language and reading to our children?

Mother Goose made her first appearance in children's literature in 1697 when the French author, Charles Perrault, published a collection of traditional folktales as Histoires ou Contes du Temps passe: Les Contes de ma Mere l'Oie (Stories of the Past with Morals: Tales of Mother Goose). Perrault was the inaugurator of the large literary tradition of collecting and publishing folktales. In this first collection were eight stories including such well known folktales as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Little Thumb, and Puss in Boots. Perrault's work crossed the Channel at least as early as 1729 and appeared in England as Histories, or Tales of Past Times, Told by Mother Goose.

The first appearance of Mother Goose is as the purported author of folktales, but she quickly morphed - in crossing the Channel - into the purveyor of nursery rhymes, only a few of which might be characterized as tales. The conversion from tales to rhymes was firmly set within fifty years with the publication in 1765 of John Newbery's (yes, that Newbery) Mother Goose's Melody.

Mother Goose is a collection of traditional children's rhymes that were in common use in 17th century England. There is no fixed canon and most common Mother Goose collections are a sampler of the larger population of several hundred traditional rhymes. Not all children's nursery rhymes are Mother Goose rhymes; new ones are being written all the time. However, all Mother Goose materials are nursery rhymes.

Even among non-reading families Mother Goose surreptitiously sneaks into the house and into the language of children and adults alike. Our daily speech is chock full of idioms and adages courtesy of Mother Goose. While not everyone will recognize all of these lines from Mother Goose rhymes, most people would recognize most of them. To some degree we all suffer source amnesia (the neurological process by which, in transferring short term memories into long term memory, we lose track of where we first learned something) and it is striking to realize how many common terms, phrases, idioms, etc. are originally from Mother Goose. Just look at some of the more commonly recognized first lines:

A diller, a dollar, a ten o'clock scholar
As I was going to St. Ives
Baa, baa, black sheep
Bobby Shaftoe's gone to sea
Bye, baby bunting
Christmas comes but once a year
Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
Dear, dear, what can the matter be?
Doctor Foster went to Glo'ster
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost
Georgy Porgy, pudding and pie
Goosey, goosey, gander
Great A, little a
Hark, hark! The dogs do bark!
Hector Protector was dressed all in green
Here we go round the mulberry bush
Hey, diddle, diddle!
Hickory, dickory, dock!
Hot-cross Buns!
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Hush-a-bye, baby, on the tree top!
If wishes were horses, beggars would ride
Jack and Jill went up the hill
Jack Sprat

That only takes you to the J's.

What do they mean, all these rhymes? That may be the point - they don't necessarily mean anything. They just sound right. The cadence and rhythm of the poems, many of which are almost jabberwockish in their nonsense, is the whole attraction of the rhyme. It is somewhat ironic that we use a text to get our children accustomed to the language that is, to an extraordinary extent, completely unmoored from the common language rules.

Folklorists and anthologists Iona and Peter Opie (authors of such standard works as The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes) were the pre-eminent specialists in Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Here is what they had to say about the recurring effort by graduate students every where to make a name by investing years of research into two or four lines of a Mother Goose rhyme and then writing a doctoral thesis on the race, class and gender issues embedded in Humpty Dumpty, or authoring a book showing that Little Bo Peep was a proto-Marxist.

Much ingenuity has been exercised to show that certain nursery rhymes have had greater significance than is now apparent. They have been vested with mystic symbolism, linked with social and political events, and numerous attempts have been made to identify the nursery characters with real persons. It should be stated straightway that the bulk of these speculations are worthless. Fortunately the theories are so numerous they tend to cancel each other out. The story of "Sing a song of sixpence," for instance, has been described as alluding to the choirs of Tudor monasteries, the printing of the English Bible, the malpractices of the Romish clergy, and the infinite workings of the solar system. The baby rocked on a tree top has been recognized as the Egyptian child Horus, the Old Pretender, and a New England Red Indian. Even when, by chance, the same conclusions are reached by two writers the reasons given are, as likely as not, antithetical. This game of "interpreting" the nursery rhymes has not been confined to the twentieth century, though it is curious that it has never been so overplayed as in the age which claims to believe in realism.

Sometimes a rhyme is just a rhyme.

Many reasons have been advanced for the enduring popularity of Mother Goose, among them:

Structure of the poems and language patterns

  • The rhythm of the poems invite a response from pre-literate, pre-speaking children.

  • Rhyme

  • Repetition

  • Alliteration

  • Exaggeration

  • Exuberance and energy

Participation - As in "This little piggy went to market" while grabbing one of their toes; or riding the parent's knee while hearing "Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross."


  • Humor

  • Riddles

  • Limericks

  • Stories

  • Nonsense rhymes

Ease of recollection - Their brevity and rhyme schemes make it very easy to almost unconsciously memorize large chunks of Mother Goose rhymes. This makes it easier for an adult to have a ready rhyme at hand for any occasion and gives a child acquiring language a point of triumph.

Bridge to literacy - Being natural mimics, children can hear and absorb these nursery rhymes in great quantity at age two and come back to these now familiar lines when they have acquired the first rudiments of the ability to decode letters into words. Because the lines are so familiar and so brief, the pathway to familiarity with reading is made that much easier.

In My Very First Mother Goose, Iona Opie cut to the chase and described the enduring appeal of Mother Goose in these terms.

Mother Goose will show newcomers to this world how astonishing, beautiful, capricious, dancy, eccentric, funny, goluptious, haphazard, intertwingled, joyous, kindly, living, melodious, naughty, outrageous, pomsildillious, querimonious, romantic, sillty, tremendous, unexpected, vertiginous, wonderful, e-citing, yo-heave-ho-ish, and zany it is. And when we come to be grandmothers, it is just as well to be reminded of these twenty-six attributes.

Independent of the linguistic joy to be derived from these nursery rhymes, there is also a wonderful range of choice in illustrations. From Kate Greenaway through Raymond Briggs, Marguerite de Angeli, Tomie de Paola, Michael Foreman, Paul Galdone, Michael Hague, Arnold Lobel, James Marshall, Maud and Miska Petersham, Patricia Polacco, Feodor Rojankovsky, Richard Scary, Jessie Wilcox Smith, Tasha Tudor, Brian Wildsmith, to Blanch Fisher Wright, many of the most prestigious children's illustrators have taken a turn at illustrating Mother Goose editions.

Where do you start in selecting a Mother Goose book given that it is likely to be one of the more lasting impressions on your child? There are several considerations. Do you want a collection or a single story? There are plenty of single rhyme illustrated books such as The Cat and the Fiddle or Hickory Dickory Dock. The short well illustrated rhymes have the advantage of brevity and being more of a size to be handled by a very young child. These have a place in a child's library, but I recommend focusing on a collection as the foundation. When you are sitting there with a squirmy two year old, you want to be able to quickly leaf through to a favorite but also have alternates to turn to without getting up and going over to the shelf.

Another consideration is the themed editions of Mother Goose's rhymes that are out there. For example there are tie-in versions such as Big Bird's Mother Goose or Barney's Favorite Mother Goose Rhymes. Alternatively there are those that try to tie Mother Goose to a particular geographical/ethnic orientation such as Babushka's Mother Goose, or Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes. Then there are the themed versions such as The Christian Mother Goose. Finally there are the "fractured" versions such as Charles Addams' Mother Goose which uses the original rhymes but visually interprets them in startling new ways.

While any one of these editions can have many merits, they are not really Mother Goose and should be postponed till later. They are almost as much for the adult as they are for the child in that, much of their entertainment value is dependent on already knowing the originals. My recommendation is to avoid the themed versions and stick to the basics.

Among the currently available editions listed below, I would draw particular attention to Favorite Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose by Scott Gustafson, Here Comes Mother Goose by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells, My Very First Mother Goose by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells, Mother Goose by Michael Hague, Mother Goose by Gyo Fujikawa, Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever by Richard Scarry, The Jessie Wilcox Smith Mother Goose by Jessie Wilcox Smith, and especially The Original Mother Goose by Blanche Fisher Wright for your consideration. What editions are your favorites?

Picture Books

Favorite Mother Goose Rhymes
by Anonymous Suggested

The Green Tiger's Illustrated Mother Goose by Anonymous Recommended

Treasury of Mother Goose by Anonymous Suggested

The Neighborhood Mother Goose illustrated by Nina Crews Suggested

Tomie Depaola's Mother Goose by Tomie dePaola

Hey Diddle Diddle & Other Mother Goose Rhymes by Tomie dePaola Suggested

Mary Engelbreit's Mother Goose by Mary Engelbreit

Mother Goose illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa
Highly Recommended

Favorite Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose illustrated by Scott Gustafson Recommended

Mother Goose by Michael Hague Recommended

Little Robin Redbreast illustrated by Shari Halpern

Mother Goose Rhymes illustrated by C.D. Hullinger

The Arnold Lobel Book of Mother Goose illustrated by Arnold Lobel Suggested

Sylvia Long's Mother Goose illustrated by Sylvia Long Suggested

James Marshall's Mother Goose illustrated by James Marshall

My First Mother Goose by Lisa McCue Suggested

Mother Goose by Will Moses Suggested

Mother Goose's Melodies by John Newbery Suggested

My Very First Mother Goose edited by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells Recommended

Here Comes Mother Goose edited by Iona Opie and illustrated byRosemary Wells Recommended

Mother Goose's Little Treasures edited by Iona Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells Suggested

Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever illustrated by Richard Scarry Recommended

Mother Goose's Storytime Nursery Rhymes edited and illustrated by Axel Scheffler and Alison Green Suggested

Hector Protector and As I Went over the Water illustrated by Maurice Sendak Recommended

The Jessie Willcox Smith Mother Goose illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith Highly Recommended

Treasury of Mother Goose by Anonymous Suggested

Mother Goose Rhymes edited by Alex Toys and illustrated by Jill McDonald Suggested

Pudgy Book of Mother Goose by Richard Walz Suggested

The Original Mother Goose illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright Highly Recommended

My First Real Mother Goose Board Book by Blanche Fisher Wright Recommended

Independent Reader

The Charles Addams Mother Goose illustrated by Charles Addams Suggested

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