Essay on Children's poetry

Mother Goose Makeover: A Sign of the Times

Popular American children’s poet and publisher Bruce Lansky has his own take on reinventing time-honored nursery rhymes.

by Bruce Lansky
I remember the day I received a copy of The Real Mother Goose after the birth of my son in 1970. I thought, Oh, I remember reading Mother Goose when I was a boy. What a thoughtful gift! Then I looked more carefully at the cover and saw that Mother Goose was pictured as an old, spindly woman in a pointy black hat and cape, quite like a witch. What a strange cover for a book that’s read to babies and little children, I thought.

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 Porgie

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.

               —Bruce Lansky

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.

               —Jeff Mondak

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.

               —Linda Knaus
I’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.

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
Originally Published: April 3, 2006


On February 22, 2007 at 12:53pm Jessica wrote:
How many kids did the old lady in the shoe have?

On March 29, 2007 at 1:23pm pizza luvr 24 wrote:
I didn't know that Humpty Dumpty sat on the pot as much as they say. For PETE'S SAKE ITS A CHILDREN'S POEM!!!!!

On April 9, 2007 at 4:33pm Tony wrote:
I like his poems. I'm doing a report on him for school and need his birthdate. All I can find is that he was born in 1941

On April 12, 2007 at 2:47pm Tim C wrote:
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.

Though these things don't exist for a majority of American children there are still many things in this world that effect them negatively. Divorce, crime, abuse, war, cancer, accidents, terrorism all effect children in some way. Either directly or indirectly as a source of percieved potential threat.

Candy coating traditional rhymes and stories to protect children's sensibilities only serves to make them cynical as they begin to realize the world their parent's are peddling doesn't match up to the world they see around them. It also keeps them from being able to deal with such things in a safe environment where parent's can answer their questions and calm any fears they may have.

Watering down these poems removes the possibility of parents helping their children deal with the concepts of good and evil and how to deal with it in the real world. What's next, do we update Shakespeare to say that Macduff made Macbeth stand in the corner because our highly sheltered kids turn into teens who can't handle the dramatic turn of events at the end of Macbeth?

Literature should help the reader to make sense of the world around them. These updated poems are merely entertainment, which has it's place, but in the end does no service to children or poetry.

On July 6, 2007 at 5:33pm Barbara Epley wrote:
It is NOT our job as adults to 'give our children a better world'. It is our job as parents to train them to live according to God's loving plan in this FALLEN world.

On February 12, 2008 at 11:51am seth krammer wrote:
i like his poems i am doing a report on him and i need when he died or is still living today

On February 21, 2008 at 4:55pm bob from chicago wrote:
yeah umm...

On April 7, 2008 at 7:07pm alex italiano wrote:
I want to become a poet, but I'm only 12 years old! what am I supposed to do?

On April 9, 2008 at 12:36pm boy crazy wrote:
THis guys poems are soo cute, I still love children's story's eventhough I'm 15!!!!oh well

On April 9, 2008 at 12:37pm paige wrote:
omg I think that this guys poems are soo cute.....

On July 27, 2010 at 12:59pm Julia Johnson wrote:

Thing 1: I do not object to reading or hearing the Mother Goose rhymes in their original form. These days, there is entirely too much emphasis on political correctness. Thing 2: I hope that Tim C will eventually learn the correct usage of "affect" vs "effect". Observing the rules of correct usage and spelling is prime in using the English language. I love the language and try to promote its correct usage to both adults and children.

On February 16, 2011 at 10:05am Nicole wrote:
Is he alive still ?

On July 10, 2011 at 8:34am Roger SharpEnter your name wrote:
I am in the process of drawing some nursery rhymes and I happened
to come across this while searching for the original words to "The
Old Woman in the Shoe" I have found out even William Shakespeare
questioned some rhymes and their meanings. Is this not how it
should be? Some rhymes are over 400 years old and are from a time
when many folk could not read let alone write. My illustrations of all
the English Traditional rhymes could well be the last of its kind as we
have entered into a world of virtual reality where many children do
not read old rhymes or poems anymore. Well meaning adults have
deem them as not politically correct or not for their children's eyes,
and yet in mass we introduce children to computer games were they
pick a weapon and can kill everything in sight and blow everything to
bits. Are we slowly loosing them the insight of history, old traditions,
and more importantly morals ? Ask a cross section of children of
today what they understand about moralities. It is no longer on the
schools national curriculum, I believe teacher's are brow beaten by the
do gooder's and so change rhymes such as,One Two Buckle My Shoe,
nine ten a big fat hen, to nine ten start again, to suit the times and
fat peoples feeling ,so clearly are not teaching anything of real life.
As for illustrating your drastically altered Rhyme of Georgie Porgie to
make it user friendly, how would one draw from life experiences, A
to do so would people find this acceptable?.............. I think not

On December 9, 2013 at 10:00pm Ann wrote:
I found a modern picture online depicting "The old woman who lived in a shoe", so went online to find alternatives. I found your site and it made me smile and then made me think of an alternative version of my own which is as follows:-

"There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,
She has so many children, yet she knew what to do.
She gave them some broth with plenty of bread,
Then kissed them all sweetly and tucked them in bed."

Hope you like it.

On July 28, 2014 at 3:16am Christopher Briggs wrote:
You say that the traditional nursery rhymes are dying out. The irony is you may be a victim of your own success. Your alternatives may do more damage to our cultural inheritance than they supposedly fix. Also there is something very second rate in my opinion about people who take others' work, and pass it off as something better. If you be such a good writer, compose new nursery rhymes of your own!

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Bruce Lansky is an internationally known poet and anthologist. He has a passion for getting children excited about reading and writing poetry. Lansky's poetry books—including Mary Had a Little Jam; Peter, Peter, Pizza-Eater; If Kids Ruled the School; and Rolling in the Aisles—are currently among America's best-selling children's poetry books. He is also the editor of the middle-grade fiction series Girls to the Rescue and . . .

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