Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose; or, The World Must Be Coming Tae an End

Illustration of Mother Goose, an elderly woman wearing a black hat, a white apron, and a blue dress, standing next to a goose
Tomie dePaola
5
Thursday, Apr 16, 2020

Psst! Hey, parents! I know you’re at home right now. I know your kids are out of school. I know this because I’m at home right now, and my kid is out of school. I know this because WE’RE ALL #ATHOMETOGETHER RIGHT NOW.

Ahem. Sorry for shouting. These are stressful times.

If it’s at all possible, I want you to find a private spot in your house—please stop laughing—away from your kids, so you can fully concentrate on a little parenting secret I’d like to share with you.

Who am I, you ask? Here are my qualifications:

I am a professional storytime leader at the Johnson County Library. I am also the parent of a 13-year-old.

Good enough? If not, no worries. Feel free to stop reading right here. You’ve got this. If so, continue reading.

Here’s my secret:

There are no parenting experts.

Let me clarify. The only parenting expert for YOUR child is YOU.

When I give advice, please take it with a grain of salt. Yes, I’ve got experience. Yes, I’ve spent twenty-seven years working at the Johnson County Library with families and kids of all ages. Yes, I’m a parent. Yes, I’ve read countless parenting guides. My favorite, by the way, is Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn. It’s available in our eLibrary as a downloadable audiobook. Here is a link to my Staff Picks Blog review from back in the day.

But, please, understand, I’m no expert on parenting your child.

Guess what? Just because Alfie Kohn is my favorite parent-educator, that doesn’t mean he’s an expert on parenting MY child. That’s the trick to reading parenting books. You gotta go in with the understanding that the author is not the expert on your particular child. It’s up to readers to think critically, to figure out if the wisdom an author shares seems legitimate or not.

That’s how I’d like for you to consider me before reading his book review. I can’t be an expert on how to raise your child. What I can do is show you some tips that have worked for my child and me. Do with them what you will.

But hold on. This is supposed to be a book review, and it is. Trust me. I’m getting there. Kohn’s parenting book is just a bonus. What I’m really here to tell you about is one of my favorite children’s books, by recently departed author Tomie dePaola. The book is called Tomie dePaola's Mother Goose.

Here’s a blurb (which includes my emphasis in bold) from School Library Journal’s review, which you can read in full in our catalog:

DePaola has collected and illustrated over 200 traditional classic Mother Goose rhymes as originally collected by Peter and Iona Opie. His illustrations convey a mood of humor, surprise and nonsense. Happy children and animals smile from well-designed pages, incorporating good use of white space and borders. Especially appealing is the interracial mix of characters. The crooked man, crooked house, barn and farm animal scenes are dePaola at his best.

OK. So we’ve covered three main points so far.

  1. There are no parenting experts. Not me. Not Alfie Kohn. Not anyone but yourself.
  2. Alfie Kohn’s book, Unconditional Parenting, is a helpful guide, taken with a grain of salt.
  3. I am a helpful guide, taken with a grain of salt.

Here's point number four. If I have any advice to give to you about raising your child it is this: Read Tomie DePaola's Mother Goose.

Mother Goose? Why are Mother Goose's nursery rhymes so important? Well, for the same reason that, according to this post by The Library of Congress, Albert Einstein thought fairy tales are important.

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Fairy tales are great for older children. But how many one-and-two-year-olds do you know who have the attention span to sit through an entire fairy tale? Zero? Yeah, I know no toddlers who have this ability, either. And that's OK. It's completely developmentally appropriate for toddlers to wiggle, to get easily distracted, and to storm off in a fury like tiny narcissists who have just been asked to focus on someone else for a minute or two. Most of them will get over it some day.

As you patiently await the day your toddler learns that they are not the center of the universe, there are still opportunities to teach them early literacy skills in such a fun, engaging way that they are completely oblivious that they are learning something from you. Something that has been passed down from generation to generation for literally hundreds of years. Something in our collective mind to remind these tiny tyrants that they are part of something bigger than themselves.

Go ahead and read Tomie DePaola's Mother Goose to preschoolers and older kids. But you might want to hold off reading it to your little squirmy worms. With toddlers, I find it's best for you to read the book yourself so you can memorize some of the rhymes, then recite them at random throughout your day. Even better, sing them! If you are unfamiliar with the tunes, scroll to the bottom of our 6 by 6 website to watch a video playlist where we demonstrate many of these classics.

If you can't find a tune to match a rhyme, do what I do and just make one up. When you really get into the swing of things, make up your own rhymes. I bet that's what Mother Goose herself did back in the day. What's really fun is to mash up a tune from one of your favorite pop songs with a nursery rhyme. It's not like you're violating copyright by singing "Dirty Feet" to the tune of AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" as you wash the mud off your toddler's bare feet after they jumped into the mud puddle despite your warning not to.

Dirty feet! Dir-ty feet!

Dirty feet! Dir-ty feet! (repeat ad nauseam)

Dirty feet and the dir-ty feet...

Oddly, My husband and I find that AC/DC has written a lot of tunes that pair well with nursery rhymes.

Or maybe not so oddly.

And that takes me to my fifth point. Are you still with me? We've have four main points—no experts, Kohn is a guide, I’m a guide--both lightly salted--and, sing or recite nursery rhymes with your toddler. So, what do they have to do with each other? Let me see if I can loop them together with my fifth and final point.

Back when I was parenting a toddler, one of our favorite things to do together was attending Storytime at the Johnson County Library. This was back when my job was still in Adult Services. I had no idea, yet, that lil ole me, who can’t carry a tune, would one day join the Youth Services department and get to lead some storytimes.

As a parent of a toddler, I looked to the storytime leaders for guidance. Most of the time, they were gushing fountains of knowledge. But every now and then, I’d catch myself wondering what the heck they thought they were up to. For example, I often worried that some of the nursery rhymes we’d sing with our children are, frankly, rather morbid, especially to modern kiddo’s ears.

Listen:

Ring around the Rosies​

Pocket full of posies

Ashes, ashes

We all fall down

“Why we sing ashes, Mommy?” My 2-year-old would ask.

Internally, I’d think: Oh dear. Doesn't it have something to do with the Plague and all the dead bodies burning around them?

Externally, I’d say: “Oh, it’s just a silly nonsense rhyme, Sweetie. Lots of nursery rhymes don’t make sense.”

I mean, how do you explain these classic nursery rhymes to toddlers?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again

What was Humpty doing sitting on a wall? Didn’t his parents warn him that he’s a fragile dude and could easily fracture his shell?

Or this one.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.

She gave them some broth without any bread;

And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

Why hasn’t a social worker gotten involved to give The Old Woman resources so she can, I don’t know, maybe feed her kids more than just broth, get them to bed without whipping them soundly, and, you know, NOT LIVE IN A SHOE?

So clearly, nursery rhymes are full of all the things. A little violence here. A little nonsense there. So why have they endured so long, passed down from generation to generation?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s because life is quite a bit like a nursery rhyme. A little violent. A little nonsensical. But, also fun. And funny. And something we never quite figure out. That’s how I feel right now, during this coronavirus quarantine. It’s scary, uncontrollable, and isolating. That’s when our children need us the most. When they are scared, out of control, and feeling like no one understands how they feel.

My friend Angelica shared with me this viral video, the one in which US Navy Admiral William H. McRaven addresses the University of Texas at Austin Class of 2014. Here’s a quote from his amazingly motivational speech, (my emphasis in bold):

My training class, having committed some egregious infraction of the rules, was ordered into the mud. The mud consumed each man until there was nothing visible but our heads. The instructors told us we could leave the mud if only five men would quit. Only five men. Just five men and we could get out of the oppressive cold. Looking around the mud flat it was apparent that some students were about to give up. It was still over eight hours til the sun came up. Eight more hours of bone-chilling cold. The chattering teeth and the shivering moans of the trainees was so loud it was hard to hear anything. And then, one voice began to echo through the night. One voice raised in song. The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two. And two became three. And before long everyone in the class was singing. The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singing, but the singing persisted. And somehow the mud seemed a little warmer. And the wind a little tamer. And the dawn not so far away. If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope. The power of one person. A Washington, a Lincoln, King, Mandela. And even a young girl from Pakistan, Malala. One person can change the world, by giving people hope. So, if you want to change the world, start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud.

This.

This is why nursery rhymes are important.

This is why I sing with kids and caregivers in storytime. Yes, it’s fun. Yes, it teaches early literacy skills. Yes, singing is a form of storytelling. But mostly, singing together—however out of tune, but with great enthusiasm—is a hopeful, healing activity. Especially when we’re stuck in life’s mud.

We are seriously stuck in life’s mud right now, friends. It’s time to sing our hearts out.

This leads me to this bizarre “children’s song” I want to share with you. It’s actually not in Tomie DePaola's Mother Goose, and I can see why, but it’s from the same source, Iona Opie. Yes, the same Iona Opie mentioned above in the School Library Journal blurb about Tomie DePaola's Mother Goose.

I want to use the song in storytime, but there’s no way. It’s hilarious. But it’s also super morbid. The song is called, "I Sent Her for Butter." I found it while researching public domain children’s songs. The title, also known as “The World Must Be Coming Tae an End,” struck me as utterly not a children's song. And yet, you can see in the video recording that four children are the ones singing it. It’s about a girl who gets sent to get some butter and she ends up falling down into the gutter, ending with the refrain, “Oh, the world must be coming tae an end, oh aye.” But falling down into the gutter is the least of her worries. Spoiler alert! By the end of the song, she ends up dead!

I found it on the British Library’s website, if you want to check it out: The Opie Collection of Children's Games and Songs. You’ll find a set of recordings made by Iona Opie between 1969 and 1983. Here’s another blurb (with my emphasis in bold,) this one from the British Library’s website:

Iona and her husband, Peter, dedicated their working lives to documenting children's play, folklore, language and literature and published several influential works, most notably The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959). Their audio archive consists of 85 open reel and cassette tapes recorded by Iona during research for The Singing Game (1985) and deposited with the British Library in 1998.

Oral history recordings provide valuable first-hand testimony of the past. The views and opinions expressed in oral history interviews are those of the interviewees, who describe events from their own perspective. The interviews are historical documents and their language, tone and content might in some cases reflect attitudes that could cause offense in today’s society.

Wow. There it is. I’m not the only one who worries about nursery rhymes and traditional children’s songs potentially causing "offense" in today’s society. It’s good to know I’m not alone.

I don’t know about you, but I’m sensitive. I hate violence and gore and anything involving the subjugation of the underdog. However, paradoxically, I often find myself drawn to bleak subject matter. Like, children singing songs about dying girls.

But seriously, there’s something a little comforting about singing a silly song about something as horrifying and incomprehensible as death. Like whistling through the graveyard. That’s why nursery rhymes are important. They are an oddly comforting reminder that we are not alone. Children and their grownups have been plagued by death since the pathogens were bubonic and not coronaviral. Children and their grownups have survived life's mud by singing together.

“The World Must Be Coming Tae an End.”

Boy: [Singing]

I sent her for butter, oh aye, oh aye,

I sent her for butter, oh aye, oh aye.

I sent her for butter and she fell in the gutter,

Oh, the world must be coming to an end, oh aye.

All four boys: [Singing]

I sent her for cheese, oh aye, oh aye.

I sent her for cheese, oh aye, oh aye.

I sent her for cheese and she fell and scraped her knees,

Oh, the world must be coming to an end, oh aye.

I sent her for bread, oh aye, oh aye,

I sent her for bread, oh aye, oh aye.

I sent her for bread and she fell down dead,

Oh, the world must be coming to an end, oh aye.

I bought her a coffin, oh aye, oh aye,

I bought her a coffin, oh aye, oh aye,

I bought her a coffin and she fell through the bottom

Oh, the world must be coming to an end, oh aye.

I buried her in dirt, oh aye, oh aye,

I buried her in dirt, oh aye, oh aye,

I buried her in dirt and she jumped out her shirt,

Oh, the world must be coming to an end, oh aye.

Thanks for humoring me, grownups. Our children rely on heroes like you every day to get them through uncertain times like this. Be brave. Carry on. And, whatever you do, keep on singing when you’re seriously stuck in life’s mud.

Becky C.

Written by Becky C.

Fun fact: I like to read and write about things you're not supposed to talk about.