The book as artefact: children’s responses to nursery rhymes
How do children develop an understanding of how books work and how they are created – of the book as artefact? From 1972-1987 Virginia Lowe kept a record of her two children, Rebecca and Ralph’s responses to literature (in play and conversation as well as in reading sessions) from birth until adolescence. Here she explains how different versions of nursery rhymes encountered orally and in books developed awareness in the children of these creative processes.
Although nursery rhymes are essentially from oral tradition, today they are likely to be met in books as well, and these collections occupy a unique place in a child’s book experience. When older, children may well encounter two versions of, say, Cinderella, but different versions of Mother Goose are something they can encounter almost from birth. The first version will still be the oral one, sung by parent or grandparent, so that their first encounter with a nursery rhyme book will already involve something familiar. They may have heard ‘Baa baa black sheep’ or ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ sung – possibly many times – and suddenly here it is, sung again but accompanied now by bright pictures in this thing called a ‘book’. Fascinating. They are also likely to meet versions sung on DVD (or tape or record), on television or on the internet.
Then they may well go on to encounter, over these early years, two or three different printed versions, by different illustrators. So the understanding grows that books are created by different people. The illustrations accompanying a rhyme will be completely different, while the rhyme remains the same – it is just interpreted in different ways by different illustrators. The verse may differ as well of course (look at the many variants over time, discovered for each rhyme by the Opies) but will be still recognisably the rhyme – fitting the same tune, and maybe accompanied by the same actions (if the reader is dexterous enough to hold book and baby at the same time as playing finger games).
Responses to ‘Humpty Dumpty’
‘Humpty Dumpty’ was significant here. It happened that the first picture to which Ralph paid attention was a big poster of Humpty Dumpty in a mother’s rest room in the city. He was thirteen weeks when he stared fixedly at it while I was feeding him. We did not show him an actual nursery rhyme book until some months later (though he would have heard me singing – how different a second child’s experiences are! Rebecca was introduced to Wildsmith’s Mother Goose at 0-3* while Ralph met it only at 0-7). At 0-8, he put his open mouth onto Humpty, as if kissing – and not onto any other of the rhymes. At 0-10, I used to sing ‘Humpty Dumpty’ slow the first half, and livelier in the second. He sat solemn in the first part, and laughed and jigged in the second. Pictures of Humpty Dumpty are a special case, because he is always egg-shaped so recognisable. But he is often dressed differently, has a different expression on his face, and can be at a different stage of falling off the wall. Rebecca recognised him depicted by four different artists at 1-6.
We had a new book from the library, Tasha Tudor’s Nursery Rhymes, when Ralph was 2-10. He had been looking at it in his room and suddenly came running through the house. ‘Mummy, come and look. Something’s gone wrong here! Look Becca! It’s Humpty Dumpty!’ On the front cover, Humpty is depicted wearing unfamiliar old fashioned military garb. Ralph had recognised him, and wanted us to share the experience, pulling Rebecca and myself through the house by our hands so we too could see this unexpected phenomenon. A few weeks later he remarked of the book, ‘There’s lots of Mother Goose rhymes in here!’ Someone sitting on our low front brick fence would lead to a remark about Humpty Dumpty. At 2-7 when my husband John was about to start the bedtime story, Ralph fell forward on his face. [What’s the matter? Are you tired?] ‘No – I want Humpty Dumpty’ so they went off together and found Esmé Eve’s Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes. I had witnessed this performance the day before when he had asked: ‘Why is his mouth like that?’ [What do you think he’s saying?] ‘Heeeeelp!’ (and falls forward – this several times.) When reading Brian Wildsmith’s Mother Goose: Nursery Rhymes at 3-6, Ralph announced at the Humpty picture, ‘I want the one with men in’ so he was quite definite in his preference for the Eve version, which does have much more activity and detail than Wildsmith.
The fact that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ is a riddle is often forgotten – though it is always there in the egg-shaped illustrations. It is among the riddles that Old Brown asks in Squirrel Nutkin (Ralph’s favourite Potter). At 2-7 Ralph was asking ‘why?’ at every rhyme in Squirrel Nutkin, and did so at Humpty. I told him the reason was that you can’t put a broken egg back together again.
The predictability of a book
The predictability of a book is something else to be learned. This is not specific to nursery rhyme books, but these may be the first books encountered, and are often read/sung in random order. When children are reading a particular book with an adult, they know they will always come upon ‘Baa baa black sheep’ and the picture will always look the same in that book. We let the children, as infants, turn the pages themselves, and of course this was in clumps, so they had not yet realised that there is predictability in the page order as well.
Not only did different nursery rhyme collections have different versions of the pictures, but sometimes the words were different too. Probably in the beginning we would have sung or recited them the same way (after all, the ‘right way’ for us adults, was the one we knew as children). But soon, especially after we obtained a couple of tapes of nursery rhymes, the children realised that alternatives were possible. Rebecca (4-9): ‘There seem to be a lot of different versions of that’ after hearing on tape ‘There was a frog lived in a well’. They were more familiar with ‘A frog he would a-wooing go’. Briggs’s The Mother Goose Treasury was a particularly rich source of unusual versions and illustrations.
Rebecca at 6-5 remarked ‘Look these are different versions’ of “Jack and Jill”’ (in Walter Crane’s Traditional Nursery Rhymes and Lucille Wood’s Mother Goose Songs). The children often had a specific version they wanted, usually based on the pictures. At 2-4 Ralph was in bed, and held his round dummy up toward the sky saying ‘moon’. I sang ‘Hey diddle diddle’ for him, but hearing it wasn’t enough - ‘find that book!’ At 2-3 he asked for ‘Fee fi fo fum’ by name while I was reading from Eve’s Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes. I started reading the verse from there but that wouldn’t do – we had to find the actual book with that title (Raymond Briggs’s Fee Fi Fo Fum) and read it through. I was surprised at Ralph asking for a book we hadn’t had recently, and also at his remembering the title. In Cakes and Custard, he wanted to know ‘where’s his bag?’ which was prominent in the illustrations to other versions of ‘Dr Foster’. At 3-2 he insisted on the version of ‘London bridge is falling down’ from Wildsmith’s Mother Goose: Nursery Rhymes, rather than the one in Eve’s Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes.
‘The words say it!’
There were other things to learn about books too. ‘Where’s the dish and the spoon?’ Ralph asked of ‘Hey diddle diddle’ in Cakes and Custard at 2-7. [They’re just not in the picture] ‘But the words say it!’ he objected, clearly understanding by now that it was the written symbols that carried the words spoken by the adult. A few days later he complained that the beetle verse in ‘Cock Robin’ was ‘wrong’ in Eve’s Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes – ‘That page doesn’t know it!’
Titles don’t necessarily indicate the contents. Rebecca (5-10) had heard the title of Helen Oxenbury’s Cakes and Custard and had told her doll that it was about what to feed babies and written by the Nursing Mothers (with which Association I was doing voluntary work at the time). When she eventually sat down to share it, she was disappointed: ‘It’s only got rhymes in! Why is it called Cakes and Custard?’
Something common to nursery rhymes is their intertextuality. One frequently encounters nursery rhymes quoted in children’s stories and that again brings home the point that they have an independent life. These rhymes were not written by anyone (or not attributed to anyone – we adults knew about Jane Taylor and ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ but wouldn’t have attempted to explain the origin of any of the rhymes to the children). They are to be found in Through the Looking Glass but much younger the children met them in Beatrix Potter (Squirrel Nutkin). Ralph tried to guess all the riddles there at 6-0, most of them familiar from the nursery rhyme collections. Rebecca was delighted to discover them also in My Naughty Little Sister, A Day at Bullerby, Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, Five Dolls in a House and Little House on the Prairie.
Some individual rhymes have become whole picture books – another demonstration that they have an autonomous life. In their childhood, my children had picture book versions of The Twelve Days of Christmas, A Frog He Would A-wooing Go, To Market to Market, Who Killed Cock Robin?, The House that Jack Built and Hector Protector and As I Went over the Water.
Eventually nursery rhyme books found their place as tools for reading practice. Neither child found learning to read an easy task – both were eight before they read at their interest level. Rebecca was 6-5 when it occurred to her to try to read the familiar rhymes, and by then she could do it quite well – so well that she started picking out differences. It had begun with the two children on the floor, with two nursery rhyme books, Walter Crane’s Traditional Nursery Rhymes and Lucille Wood’s Mother Goose Songs. ‘You have this hymn book, Ralph’, said Rebecca and presumably gave him Crane, which has music in. Rebecca was comparing them line by line and commented, ‘Look Mum, these are different. This says “wat-er” and this says “water”’ (at ‘Jack and Jill’). The next day she discovered of ‘Baa baa black sheep’: ‘These are different versions!’ She also started writing a list of their songs in common. When he was 7-4 Ralph was actually reading ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum’ because he asked, ‘What does KNAVE spell?’
Both children were able to recognise an artist’s illustrative style. I had A Child’s Garden of Verses illustrated by Brian Wildsmith, and asked Ralph (3-0) what it reminded him of? ‘Hey diddle diddle’ he replied (i.e. Mother Goose) which was what I expected, as they have the same layout. However Rebecca (6-3) later said it reminded her of The Hare and the Tortoise and Puzzles (two other titles by Brian Wildsmith). At 5-10 she requested Cakes and Custard as ‘The book by the person who did the book about the tree’ – which I worked out was Ivor Cutler’s Meal One, also illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.
Nursery rhymes have other functions for the young child too. Language acquisition is one: ‘Help! My heart will break if you don’t!’ (Ralph 2-8); ‘I’ve got a pail of water. I’m going to Jack and Jill Ralph! (Rebecca 4-1). The basis of games is another, and the learning of real and pretend – when something can be expected to be plausible, and when it’s nonsense.
The importance of nursery rhyme collections
Can I make a plea in these difficult times for publishing? A Mother Goose collection – on paper not in e-book form – is a wonderful birth present. It is not outgrown for years, and a child can’t have too many nursery rhyme collections. They will learn that there are different interpretations and different versions – and learn the nature of books. Having sung a nursery rhyme at 2-7 Ralph remarked with satisfaction, ‘That was a nice song’.
Alderson, Brian (ed.) Cakes and Custard: Children’s Rhymes, illus. by Helen Oxenbury. London : Heinemann, 1974.
Briggs, Raymond. Fee Fi Fo Fum: A Picture Book of Nursery Rhymes. Harmondsworth : Penguin Books in assoc. with H. Hamilton, 1969.
Briggs, Raymond. The Mother Goose Treasury. Harmondsworth : Puffin Books in assoc. with H. Hamilton, 1969.
Crane, Walter. Traditional Nursery Rhymes. London : Ebury Press for Dealerfield [ca. 1975]
Eve, Esmé. Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes. London : Pearl Press [ca. 1958]
Lowe, Virginia. ‘Don’t tell me all about it. Just read it to me.’ In Where Literacy Begins: Children’s Books from 0 to 3, ed. by Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer. Amsterdam : Benjamin [in press]
Lowe, Virginia. ‘Playing with words: Two children’s encounters with poetry from birth.’ In Poetry and Childhood, ed. by Morag Styles et al. Stoke on Trent : Trentham Books, 2010, p. 227-231.
Lowe, Virginia. Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two Children Tell. London : Routledge, 2007.
Opie, Iona and Peter (ed.) The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Corrected reprint. Oxford : Univ. Press, 1977.
Sendak, Maurice. Hector Protector and As I Went over the Water. London : Bodley Head, 1967.
Tudor, Tasha. Mother Goose: Seventy-Seven Verses. [s.l.] Henry Z. Walch, 1944.
Wildsmith, Brian. Mother Goose: Nursery Rhymes. London : Oxford Univ. Press, 1964.
Wood, Lucille (ed.) Mother Goose Songs. [s.l.] Bowmar [ca. 1971]
Other children’s books mentioned
Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking Glass.
Clare, Helen. Five Dolls in a House.
Cutler, Ivor. Meal One, illus. by H. Oxenbury.
Edwards, Dorothy. My Naughty Little Sister.
Kent, Jack. The Twelve Days of Christmas.
Lindgren, Astrid. A Day at Bullerby.
Oxenbury, Helen Numbers of Things.
Potter, Beatrix. Squirrel Nutkin.
Storr, Catherine. Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf.
Wilder, Laura Ingalls. Little House on the Prairie.
Wildsmith, Brian. The Hare and the Tortoise.
Wildsmith, Brian. Puzzles.
* I have used 0-3 to indicate that the child was 3 months old, 5-2 to show 5 years 2 months old etc.
Dr Virginia Lowe lives in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. For the past 15 years she has been the proprietor of Create a Kids’ Book, a manuscript assessment agency, which also runs regular workshops on creating the picture book or children’s novel, interactive writing e-courses, mentorships and produces a regular free e-bulletin on writing for children and children’s literature generally. See www.createakidsbook.com.au for further details. Her book, Stories, Pictures and Reality: Two children tell (2007) is published by Routledge (978 0 415 39724 7, £26.99 pbk).
Other details about these two children and poetry (including nursery rhymes) can be found in Lowe, Virginia. ‘Don’t tell me all about it. Just read it to me.’ In Where Literacy Begins: Children’s Books from 0-3, ed. by Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer. Amsterdam, Benjamin, 2011, p.209-225 and Lowe, Virginia. ‘Playing with words: Two children’s encounters with poetry from birth.’ In Poetry and Childhood, ed. by Morag Styles et al. Stoke on Trent: Trentham Books, 2010, p.227-231.
This article is a shortened version of an article first published in the ejournal write4children - www.write4children.org