Over the Hills and Far Away is a Treasury in the true sense of the word: a collection of 150 rhymes from countries all over the English-speaking world, including Great Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana, South Africa and the Caribbean, compiled by Seven Stories co-founder Elizabeth Hammill. There are 150 rhymes, and each double-page spread is illustrated by a different artist, a star-studded roll call of international award-winners and world-class illustrators, as well as young emerging talent from the four corners of the globe. Elizabeth explains how the book came about.
This story begins in 2000. Always fascinated by what English folklorist Iona Opie calls the ‘international exchange and flow’ of nursery rhymes and verse, I frequently scoured bookstores and libraries for nursery collections, enjoying the discovery of rhyme and language in motion as traditional verses are given new and varied life across the globe. Single culture collections of homegrown rhymes from America, the Caribbean and Australia as well as verse that has entered English from Asian, African and Native and Hispanic American cultures and elsewhere have intrigued me too. Listening with pleasure to the many ‘diverse voices’ that speak to the very young, I was surprised that nowhere could I find a wide-ranging ‘Mother Goose’ that sets these translated and ‘newer’ verses alongside traditional favorites and injects fresh life into them – a collection that reflects our increasingly diverse world to the youngest readers. How could this unexpected gap be filled?
At that time, my attention was focused on the establishment of Seven Stories, now the National Centre for Children’s Books. As we raised funding for this project, I wondered whether an international ‘Mother Goose’ for the English speaking world could be created that not only supported the artistic vision of the nascent Centre but also benefited it from royalties worldwide? Could the double spreads be illustrated by artists worldwide who would donate their time and work to the Centre’s growing Collection?
It was this intriguing idea that I began to explore in the summer of 2000 when I visited the African-American artist and storyteller Ashley Bryan in Maine and found warm and whole-hearted support for the project. My research began in Ashley’s library where I was introduced to a wealth of African, Caribbean, African American and folk material. Ten months later – the enterprise had been embraced by publisher David Fickling and work had commenced on a collection to be called Over the Moon. However, as the Seven Stories project gathered pace, it became clear that my focus needed to be on the Centre rather than the collection, so reluctantly, it was put to one side.
Eight years later, I revisited my original text, urged on by colleagues familiar with my initial collection. To my delight, it still felt fresh and alive. There was nothing quite like it on the market. Janetta Otter-Barry shared my excitement and Frances Lincoln agreed to publish the book. It was to be 160 pages long and some 70 artists were to be approached for contributions!
Returning to the rhymes, I explored the original sources of many of the translated verses found initially in anthologies. I discovered, for instance, that the Omaha Native American Song of Two Ghosts – My friend/this is the wide world/we’re travelling over/walking on moonlight – which might have served as an opening invitation to travel the world in nursery rhymes, came from a story in which the ghosts were harbingers of death. Beautiful though the image was, it would not have been sung to a small child. Context mattered. I found instead a simple Papago verse which extended an invitation to parent and child to listen and share the verses to come: How shall I begin my song/In the blue night that is settling?/I will sit here and begin my song. And so revisions and additions continued…
With the collection reworked by mid-2012, I began inviting illustrators to contribute artwork. I was keen to match contributors and rhymes artistically, culturally and temperamentally and to involve both established and emerging artists. The positive responses that I received, for example, from Marcia Williams – ‘How did you know I’ve always wanted to illustrate Old Mother Hubbard?’ – and Jessica Ahlberg – ‘I love drawing mice!’ – continued. A Seven Stories/Frances Lincoln competition for art students revealed exciting new talent. Suggestions from agents and artist friends and internet exploration, especially for North American rhymes, identified more. The process took some 20 months with over 100 artists contacted and 77 eventually contributing.
When artwork began to arrive (It felt like Christmas every day!), it was clear that the artistic freedom given to the contributors had elicited inspired illustrations. I was delighted by the wit, imagination, multiple perspectives, interpretations, experimentation in style and sense of ‘joy’, as Ashley Bryan put it, that pervaded the images received. I was delighted too by the way the words and pictures flowed through the book. Designer Andrew Watson wove everything together so that the invitation to travel ‘over the hills and far away’ on an adventure in language, image, imagination, and culture that I had imagined all those years ago now came vividly to life. Of course, there is far more to this story but I hope I have captured a sense of the texture and richness of this creative journey which now carries on out into the world.
Over the Hills and Far Away, A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes from Around the World is published by Frances Lincoln Books, 9781847804068, £14.99 hbk.