That was just the beginning of my uneasiness. As luck would have it, I opened the book to a rhyme I remembered: “There Was an Old Woman.” I learned that this old woman “lived in a shoe,” fed her children “some broth without any bread,” then “whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed.” That’s one nursery rhyme my son doesn’t need to hear! I thought.
I also found “Georgie Porgie” and read that he “kissed the girls and made them cry.” That’s another nursery rhyme my son doesn’t need to hear, I decided. Glancing further through the book, I noticed a rhyme called “Pease Porridge Hot” and thought, Yuck! And if Douglas asks me what it is, I won’t have an answer because even I don’t quite know.
And so it went as I flipped through the pages. I finally did read the book to my son at bedtime, but I tried to scan ahead in each rhyme to make sure it wasn’t too mean-spirited or scary. If I saw something that seemed inappropriate, I’d quickly revise the rhyme. I’d heard “Rock-a-Bye Baby” thousands of times, but I’d never really thought about it until I read it with my small son sitting on my lap. The first time I sang “Rock-a-Bye, Baby” to him, it went like this: “Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop. When the wind blows, the cradle will rock. / When the birds sing, the baby will smile, and fall asleep happy, in a short while.”
As a parent, I wanted to give my children a world in which fairness, safety, and love were reliable undergirdings. These rhymes were not a part of that vision, and certainly not the note on which I wanted to send them to bed. As an adult I’d learned that “Ring around the Rosie” recalled the Black Plague. The silly “dish” and “spoon” who ran away in “Hey Diddle Diddle” are believed to have been servants in the court of Queen Elizabeth who had run away together and were later imprisoned in the Tower of London as a punishment for their affair.
Those facts could keep until my children were older, but there was still much in these traditional rhymes that prevented me from reading them with ease. I knew my children would love the charming names and language play—Peter Piper, Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty, and Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary—and I knew the memorable rhythm and rhyme patterns would quickly find “parking places” in their brains, just as they had in mine.
But I couldn’t overlook the violent, scary, mean-spirited, or just plain weird aspects of many of the rhymes, so I eventually got out of the habit of reading Mother Goose to my children. When I talked to other parents about my experience with Mother Goose rhymes, I discovered I wasn’t alone. A few enjoyed passing on the traditional rhymes to their children, but a significant number either let their books gather dust on their bookshelves or revised the rhymes so their children would have positive bedtime-reading experiences.
For literature to live, it has to stand the test of time. Nursery rhymes have certainly been remembered and shared for generations, but I think they’re beginning to fall into disuse because parents are uncomfortable or bored with them. Every year several new versions of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes are published. Why? Because they sell. Over the years, every new edition has changed the rhymes a bit. For example, newer editions of “There Was an Old Woman” state that “she spanked them all soundly / And sent them to bed.” Spanked may be an updated word for whipped, but it’s still violent. It’s not enough of an improvement.
Years later, as a publisher and poet, I read “There Was an Old Woman” and thought, If you can’t provide suitable lodging or a nutritious supper for your children, the least you can do is “hug them all sweetly / and tuck them in bed.” I realized Mother Goose needed a thorough makeover rather than a cosmetic change. I wanted to retain the most memorable and popular characters, as well as the rhymes’ rhythms and patterns. Curds and whey could just as easily be an ice-cream cone, and pease porridge could pass as oatmeal. I wanted to retain the rhymes’ wit and capture parents’ attention, and I wanted the rhymes to be easy and fun to read.
So I tried it and published The New Adventures of Mother Goose, later renamed Mary Had a Little Jam. Its success helped spawn the follow-up book Peter Peter Pizza-Eater, which will be published in April 2006. Both of these books are anthologies that include nursery rhymes by a number of different poets.
Here are some newfangled nursery rhymes from Mary Had a Little Jam and Peter Peter Pizza-Eater:
Georgie PorgieI’m hoping these Mother Goose makeovers will succeed in reintroducing the lovable characters and memorable rhythm and rhyme patterns to at least one more generation of parents and children.
Georgie Porgie, handsome guy,
Won’t kiss the girls, and so they cry.
It breaks their hearts—he loves another.
He’s only five; he loves his mother.
There Was an Old Woman
There was an old lady who lived in a shoe,
which wasn’t too bad when the winter winds blew.
But the strong summer sun was too hot to handle,
so she packed up her stuff and moved to a sandal.
—Larry Cohen and Steve Zweig
Here is the church and here is the steeple.
Open the doors and see all the people.
Preacher is talking and cell phones are beeping.
None of this noise can keep Daddy from sleeping.
Humpty Dumpty sat on the pot.
Humpty Dumpty tinkled a lot.
Now all the king’s horses
And all the king’s men
Will never dress Humpty in diapers again.
There are very good arguments for making the traditional rhymes known to another generation—not the least of which is the communal experience of every kid reciting the same rhyme the same way. And perhaps the modern versions have lost some of the mystery and feeling that helped keep those older rhymes relevant and meaningful to so many generations. But it’s also important to remember that those rhymes emerged from a world in which a childhood commonly contained danger and tragedy along with joy. Would we want to return to a time in which infant mortality was high and children were often alone in bed, sick with polio or measles or other diseases that are now mild afflictions or no threat at all? No, of course not.
Children’s emotional capacity is not diminished because they learn nonsense rhymes untainted by pain. It’s our job as adults to give our children a better world. And in my own small way, for me, that has meant giving my children rhymes that they love, that are silly for silly’s sake, because I want my kids to know the pleasures of our language transformed by rhyme.
During a recent trip I made to visit schools in Philadelphia, a teacher told me why she felt Mary Had a Little Jam and Peter Peter Pizza-Eater are so important. She came up to me after my workshop with her first-grade class and said, “Very few of my students know the original nursery rhymes at all. Apparently, some parents just don’t read Mother Goose to their kids anymore.” Maybe my books will help to counter that. I don’t want those rhymes, the pleasure of language for small children, or the experience of reading and memorizing rhymes to completely go away.
All poems copyright 2006; with permission of Meadowbrook Press