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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A Bargain For Frances: Being Careful and Being Friends

There are some books that I save to read to my class at particular times (my stacks of holiday books come to mind) or for a particular occasion (Officer Buckle and Gloria always follows our discussion of class rules).  Then there are books that I have to read because they’re just … necessary.  This week I pulled A Bargain for Frances (written by Russell Hoban, pictures by Lillian Hoban) off the shelf, in part because it seemed to connect to our school anti-bullying initiative, but more because it’s just a necessary childhood book in my mind.  It’s a book that could easily fall between the cracks because it doesn’t quite fit into any category.  The format isn’t quite like a typical picture book, and the “I Can Read” edition I have scares away some of my more sophisticated readers.  It hasn’t won any major awards (although it was a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year in 1970).  Yet every time I read it I’m struck by what a truly wise, warm, and funny story it is.

Cover of "A Bargain for Frances"

Cover of A Bargain for Frances

In A Bargain for Frances, the young badger Frances (also featured in Bread and Jam for Frances and A Baby Sister for Frances) is going to play with her friend Thelma.  Before she leaves, her mother warns her to “be careful.”  She reminds Frances of other times Thelma has manipulated things so that they go her way, pointing out that “when you play with Thelma you always get the worst of it.”  Frances reassures her mother and sets off for a tea party with her friend.  Frances tells Thelma that she is saving up for a tea set made of real china.  Yet somehow, by the end of the tea party, Thelma has convinced Frances to give her the $2.17 she has saved up in exchange for Thelma’s plastic tea set.  When Frances learns that Thelma tricked her, Frances comes up with a trick of her own to get her money back.

I’m still not sure if it was multiple readings of this story as a child that made it stick in my mind or if it was just the power of the story itself, but the details of this book come back to me incredibly clearly every time I reread it.  I have such a strong memory of the two tea sets – the real china one with pictures all in blue and the plastic one with red flowers – that they almost seem like something I wanted myself as a child (though I wasn’t really a “tea set” girl).  The single penny at the bottom of the sugar bowl that Frances uses to trick Thelma, the expressions on the two girls’ faces throughout … these little details are part of what make this simple story such a classic.

Yet when I read this book as an adult, I’m struck even more by the realism of the relationship between the girls.  Thelma’s careful persuasion of Frances could be studied by negotiators: she starts by talking up her own tea set, then disparages china tea sets (which are “no good” because they just break).  She explains that you can’t get china tea sets any more, and tells a cautionary tale about a girl who saved up for one and never ended up getting any tea set at all.  Finally, when Frances is eager to buy Thelma’s set, Thelma demurs, declaring she might have “changed her mind.”  It’s masterful (and pretty funny), but also feels so right in imitating the ways little girls interact with each other.  I always feel my stomach give a little lurch as I read it and watch Frances getting drawn in.  This year when I asked my students how they would feel if they were Frances, one student declared, “I would feel really uncomfortable and like I wanted to get out of there!”  My thoughts exactly.  Frances’s trick to get around the “no backsies” promise she gave Thelma is also both clever and believable, precisely the plan a bright little girl might come up with.

At the end of my read aloud of this book this week, one my students made an interesting observation.  “Her mom is hardly in this story at all,” he pointed out.  “She’s there at the beginning and then she doesn’t come back.”  It was an interesting point, and I asked the class if they thought Frances’s mom knew about Thelma’s tricks.  They all agreed that she seemed to know Frances should be careful around Thelma, but Frances didn’t actually tell her mother about the sneaky trading.  “Do you think she should have told her mom?” I asked.  “Oh, yes!” most of the class chorused (carefully repeating key points of our recent conversations about telling an adult if someone is bullying you).  As an adult, I’m torn.  On the one hand, I’d like to think my students would tell me about a situation like the one in the book.  When I was a child, I tended to be quick to look for adult assistance, and I probably would have voted with the majority in my class to advise Frances to tell her mother.  And yet … part of the charm of this story is the way these two girls experience this conflict and change because of it.  When Thelma realizes she’s been tricked, she tells Frances she’ll have to “be careful” when she’s playing with her.  Frances asks her, “Do you want to be careful or do you want to be friends?”  I can’t help feeling that an adult mediator might have helped Frances to get back the tea set, but might not have helped her get to that understanding of friendships, that most powerful of lessons from this book. A recent post from the “Motherlode” blog at the New York Times echoes the importance of this lesson, calling it a Secret of Adulthood.  I’m also reminded of Michael Thompson’s excellent book about children’s relationships, Best Friends, Worst Enemies, in which he writes about the importance of healthy conflict for children’s social development.

Good conflict can create good relationships … and it certainly creates memorable literature.  If this book was part of your childhood, it’s certainly worth rereading and sharing with the children in your life.  Happy reading!