The Case of the Missing Nursery Rhymes

detectiveblue

Detective Blue (cover image from Amazon.com)

I usually have a pretty good read (ha ha) on the types of books that my third graders will enjoy, but occasionally a book I expect to get a standing ovation gets more of a polite golf-clap when I present it to the class.  When I read Detective Blue (written by Steve Metzger, illustrations by Tedd Arnold) in the bookstore, I personally fell in love.  The book is a riff on noir detective stories using characters from nursery rhymes.  Detective Blue (formerly known as “Little Boy”) has to interview a variety of classic characters in his effort to solve The Case of Missing Miss Muffet.  Throughout the story and in the background of the illustrations the author and illustrator have tucked references to 24 nursery rhymes.  Aside from a connection to one of my favorite series for adults (more on that later), I loved the graphic novel look of the book, the illustrations by Tedd Arnold (illustrator of the Fly Guy series), and the fractured fairy tale feel of the book.

But when I gave the book its first read aloud last year, the reaction was a bit more lukewarm than I expected.  The kids weren’t bored … but they weren’t in love either.  Unlike the other fractured fairy tale books in the “Books We’ve Read” bucket, this didn’t get very many rereadings.  At the time, I decided the class just wasn’t familiar enough with hard-boiled detective traditions.  After all, it’s hard to see the humor in dialogue like, “Forget the plum, Horner!  Just give me the facts!” when you’re too young to have encountered Sam Spade and Nero Wolfe.

With this year’s rereading, however, I found hints of another, more distressing problem.  I suspect … nursery rhyme illiteracy.

My first hint came with the cover.  I showed the class the title, in which the word “Little Boy” has been crossed out and replaced with “Detective” (above a picture of Detective Blue in a trench coat and fedora).

Me: Who has an idea about what nursery rhyme the title character might come from?

Third Graders: (blank stares)

Hmmm.  Maybe a few more clues would help.  I started reading.  The book begins with Detective Blue in his office addressing the reader: “My name is Blue – Detective Blue.  You might know me as Little Boy Blue.  At one time I blew a horn and looked after cows and sheep.  That’s in the past!”

Me: (pointing to the signed photo from the cows and sheep and the horn on his desk) So our narrator is Little Boy Blue!  You know … Little Boy Blue, come blow your …

Third Graders: (more blank stares)

Me: … horn.  The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the …

Third Graders: (confused looks)

Me: … corn.

Oh, dear.

Me at four months old, desperately grasping my favorite book

Me at four months old, desperately grasping my favorite book

Now, the kids did recognize most of the “blockbuster” characters.  They knew Humpty Dumpty and Miss Muffet.  They seemed vaguely familiar with Mary’s little lamb (though they didn’t seem to know the second verse … there was general confusion about why the lamb was caught sneaking into the school building), and they knew the Muffin Man (thanks, Shrek!).  And I wouldn’t necessarily have expected them to identify some of the more obscure characters (like the cat walking by with a suitcase labeled “I’ve been to London”).  But Old King Cole?  Jack Be Nimble?  Hot Cross Buns?  (“Oh, like the recorder song?  Why is that in this book?”)  Sigh.

I was frankly a little horrified by this development.  As you can see, I’ve been a nursery rhyme fan from way back, even at four months old.  (Witness my death grip on my very favorite nursery rhyme book in this photo.)  I don’t think the problem for my third graders is a lack of early reading … in fact, I suspect the problem might be the reverse.  There are so many, many options open to parents in the board book world now that it’s easy to see how nursery rhymes could be pushed out.  I could probably identify a few titles that most of my students would remember from their toddler days: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Guess How Much I Love You, Good Night Moon.  All that early literacy pays off so well – are kids really missing anything if they miss out on the traditional nursery rhymes?

Well … yes.  I think they are.  I think there’s something important in the shared culture of nursery rhymes, something like a childhood version of mythology.  There’s the inherent pleasure of the rhymes and the language, but there’s also pleasure in the way characters become universal.  Books can be parodied (like Goodnight, iPad), but only shared characters can appear in multiple versions, retellings, and reimaginings.

The Big Over Easy (cover image from Wikipedia)

The Big Over Easy (cover image from Wikipedia)

In fact, the adult series of books that drew me to Detective Blue is based on that particular pleasure in reencountering familiar characters with a new twist.  The Nursery Crime series is by the fantastically imaginative Jasper Fforde (who has one of the most vital and creative author websites I’ve seen).  The first two books, The Big Over Easy and The Fourth Bear, depend on a melding of genres that draws on readers’ familiarity with fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and hard-boiled detective stories.  I think we’re robbing children of something if we deny them the chance to know (and then get to know again) those characters and genres.

It’s probably a little late to educate my third graders about nursery rhymes – I imagine there might be an outcry if I tried to pull out Mother Goose for read aloud – but it’s not too late for others!  My recommendation?  Buy nursery rhymes for your toddlers and toddlers you know.  Include nursery rhymes in the board books you bring to the next baby shower you attend.  Expose kids to these characters early … and set them on the path to a whole lifetime of fractured nursery rhyme pleasure.

Captivated by nursery rhymes - this could be your child!

Captivated by nursery rhymes – this could be your child!

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The Dragonling Series: Growing Fantasy Fans

Dragonling cover via Amazon

The Dragonling (Cover via Amazon)

To me as a reader and a teacher, it seems obvious that a person’s childhood reading shapes their sense of self as an adult reader … in fact, that connection was one reason I started writing this blog.  I believe that, if you’re lucky, you find some touchstone books in your childhood that stay with you throughout your reading life, specific stories and characters that become part of your identity.  But I think that childhood reading can shape you in other ways as well.  The books you read as a child can help to set your expectations for books and for genres.  I imagine those streams of childhood books cutting a riverbank for each genre, training your mind in what to expect from a mystery, a fairy tale, a piece of historical fiction.  A well-worn path could, I think, make it easier for an older reader to slip easily into more sophisticated examples of a genre they learned as a child.

Which brings me to fantasy.

Magic, wizards, fairies, and spells are all very common features of children’s books, and those elements seem to point the way toward an adulthood of quality fantasy reading.  However, this fall I discovered a book that captured so many elements of classic genre fantasy that it seemed to quality as a set of training wheels for a future of Tolkien and McCaffrey.  I present it here as a good starting place if you’d like to set your children on a path toward speaking Elvish (or at least appreciating it).

The book is called The Dragonling, and it is part of a series of six books by Jackie French Koller.  She describes the books and her process of writing them on her website.  As I read The Dragonling with one of my book groups this fall, I found myself becoming more and more tickled by the ways in which it fit so neatly into expectations for the fantasy genre, on so many different levels.

1. The Practical Level.  Honestly, this book just sounds like a fantasy.  It’s set in a village that is both vaguely medieval and somehow timeless: thatched roofs, men dressed in tunics and knee breeches, lots of bow-and-arrow hunting.  The characters have names like Darek and Clep and Pola.  There are dragons, carefully classified into different species, as well as other familiar-sounding but fantastical creatures and plants, like glibbets and barliberries.  There are also specific rules of this fantasy world: a dragonhunt is a rite of passage for young men; the killer of the dragon is named the “marksman” and has the honor of wearing the dragon’s claw around his neck.  All of this essentially boils down to “world building” in the best tradition of great fantasy books.  It’s world building that is simple enough for third graders to grasp, but it’s training them in that unique combination required of readers of fantasy: suspending disbelief while also following the strict, author-established rules of a world.

2. The Character Level. It will surprise no one who is a fan of adult fantasy that this story centers on a young man who makes a connection with a creature from outside his own world and has to make a series of Right Decisions, many of which involve going against his family and his traditions.  When Darek’s brother brings back the body of Great Blue dragon from a dragonhunt, Darek discovers a baby in the mother dragon’s pouch.  He names the tiny dragon Zantor and sets out on a quest to bring it back to its home in the Valley of the Dragons.  Along the way he learns to question many of the things he had been taught about dragons and forms a friendship with the little dragon.  This type of solitary hero’s quest may seem familiar … but that’s because it’s so effective.

3. The Thematic Level. To me, one of the key elements of a great fantasy book is its ability to speak to Big Ideas, which can often be approached more directly because the setting and characters are comfortably removed from our world.  The Dragonling delivers on those Big Ideas, and manages to do so in a third-grade friendly way.  When I read the book, I personally focused on some pacifist ideas: by the end of the novel, Darek and other members of his community start to take a stand against the idea that killing others is a way for boys to prove themselves as men.  Interestingly, when I asked the students what they thought the lesson of the story might be, they focused instead on big social ideas.  Over the course of the story, Darek learns that dragons are peaceful plant-eaters instead of the dangerous hunters he’s always been told they are.  One of the students pointed out that part of the story and said she thought it was meant to teach “not to listen to what other people say about someone, but to find out for yourself what they’re like.”  Pretty big ideas from a third-grade level story, but completely accessible for these readers.

Perhaps one of the most fantasy-like elements of this fantasy novel was the reaction of the kids who read it.  I read this with a group of five (three girls and two boys) and every one of them responded with almost obsessive love for this book.  We were reading an edition that had the first three books in the series, and I had originally planned to just read the first one.  When I suggested that we might not read the second (A Dragon in the Family), the group practically mutinied.  They were devastated to learn that we wouldn’t be reading the third book, Dragon Quest (my perfectly reasonable argument that we were going on Christmas break and therefore wouldn’t be IN a book group falling on deaf ears) and all begged to be allowed to read the third book on their own.  Honestly, if there were a Comic Con equivalent for Dragonling books, I think I would have had five potential visitors ready to go.

Dragon in the Family, Book 2 in the series (Cover via Amazon)

Dragon in the Family, Book 2 in the series (Cover via Amazon)

As I get this blog up and running again, I’m going to continue to look for the books that can set young readers on track for a lifetime of good genre reading … and retrace the books that set me in those paths.  If you’re in the process of growing a young fantasy reader, this series is a great place to start.