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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Holiday Read Alouds, Part 2: Tales to Warm the Heart

Having taken my own advice about waiting until the perfect “tipping point” to introduce holiday books into the classroom, I now find myself (as I do almost every year) in a slight frenzy.  You see, the size of the stack of books I was hoping to share with my class before vacation doesn’t quite match up with the number of days we have left.  I suppose that’s not the worst problem in the world to have – it does flip the “countdown” feeling in my head to something positive – but I’m surprised by how important certain books feel to me, almost like I wouldn’t be ready for the holidays if I didn’t get a chance to read them.  I suppose the traditions we create within classrooms can become almost as strong and personal as the traditions we create within our families, those non-negotiable ceremonies that make the holidays so special.

Today I’ll focus on two books that I would consider my favorite “heartwarmers.”  I’ll make time later in the week for some books that are just pure fun.

1st edition

1st edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (written by Russell Hoban, pictures by Lillian Hoban) – I must admit that I have an ulterior motive in reading this book to my class: it allows me to show the video of the Jim Henson adaptation of this story on the last day before break.  That movie remains one of my favorite childhood Christmas specials.  In fact, I’m not entirely sure I was as connected to the book as a child as I was to the movie, but I’ve rediscovered the book as an adult.  Essentially it is a retelling of “The Gift of the Magi” with animal characters.  Emmet and his Ma are too poor to buy each other Christmas gifts.  A Christmas Eve talent show seems to offer a perfect opportunity to use their musical talents to win some money and buy a “real, store-bought” gift for one another.  They secretly prepare to enter with different acts, but each finds that their act will require a sacrifice: Emmet will have to put a hole in Ma’s washtub to make a bass for his jug-band, and Ma will have to sell Emmet’s toolbox to get the fabric for her costume.  Will their sacrifices pay off in the end?  I learned after my first year of reading this story to children that it’s best to stop right before the talent show if you’re also going to show them the movie, creating some sense of suspense.  Children’s expectations for “happy endings” in stories like this are so strong that the debate is usually about which one of the characters will win the show, not whether they’ll win at all; the actual ending of the story is usually very surprising to them.  The Hobans are familiar to many children from the other books they wrote together, particularly A Bargain for Frances and Bread and Jam for Frances, and the gentle style of the story and pictures in this book is

Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas

Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas (Photo credit: ulalume)

similar to their other works.  I find the low-key, heartwarming tone of both the book and movie to be a nice counterbalance to the more frenetic pace of some holiday specials.  This book is sadly out of print, but you can find it in libraries or used book stores. It’s worth hunting down!  The Jim Henson special is available on DVD, and you can find extensive informationabout the making of the film on the Muppet wiki.

Silver Packages: An Appalachian Christmas Story (written by Cynthia Rylant, pictures by Chris K. Soentpiet) – Cynthia Rylant is truly a remarkable author for many reasons, not least of which is her ability to write in such completely different genres.  Children who know her name from series such as Henry and Mudge or Cobble Street Cousins might be surprised to hear that she also wrote this lovely, touching picture book.  The story takes place in a poor village in Appalachia.  Many years ago, a rich man had a car accident in the hills and was well-cared for by the people who found him.  When he had healed, his caretakers refused to accept any money from him, and he left feeling that he owed a debt to the community.  Every year he rides through the towns in the hills on a train, throwing packages wrapped in silver paper to the children who run alongside.  A little boy named Frankie waits in the cold for the train, hoping every year for a toy doctor kit.  One year his package has a cowboy holster and warm socks; another year it contains a toy police car and mittens.  As an adult, he looks back on those precious packages and makes a decision about a debt of his own that he feels he owes.  The writing in this story is poetic in a subtle way, and I absolutely love the detailed illustrations.  There are some really interesting conversations to be had with children about what it means to owe someone a debt and how the gifts we give can affect others.  If you’re reading this aloud, prepare yourself for the last page, though – I always have to blink back a few tears on this one.

Now, a disclaimer.  This book is actually my runner up for Favorite Tearjerker.  My real Favorite Tearjerker is The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey (written by Susan Wojciechowski, illustrated by P.J. Lynch); however, since I can’t read that book (aloud or to myself) without actually bursting into tears, I have officially removed it from the list of read alouds so I do not scar my children emotionally.  I can usually make it through Silver Packages with just a lump in my throat, so it’s a safer choice.  Do yourself a favor and read The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey … but if you’re anything like me, do it in a corner by yourself with a box of tissues nearby.

Happy reading and happy holidays!

Holiday Read Alouds, Part 1: Lighting the Candles

In the classroom, I feel that each holiday comes with its own tipping point, its own ticking clock.  Acknowledge the holiday too early and you risk spinning the whole class into chaos for days (joyful chaos, but still).  Fail to acknowledge the holiday and the underground excitement will eventually explode.  Finding that tipping point is a careful operation.  October 30 – business as usual.  October 31 – Halloween math, Halloween read alouds, Halloween poetry …

When it comes to the winter holiday season, that tipping point is even more ticklish.  I find that it is right around this time, a week or two into December, when the tide becomes too strong to deny.  Reports on last night’s Hanukkah gifts, discussions of advent calendars, and the humming …oh, the humming.  “Jingle Bells.”  “Here Comes Santa Claus.”  It’s official: the holidays are coming.

My very favorite way to (calmly) acknowledge the coming of the season is through read alouds.  I’ll be kicking off my yearly Holiday Read Alouds this week in the classroom and sharing some of the ones I love in my next few blog posts.  There’s always room on the read aloud schedule for a few more, so feel free to share some of your favorites through the comments section.

With Hanukkah beginning this past weekend, I’ll be starting this year with one of my favorite picture books about the holiday: Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (written by Eric A. Kimmel, pictures by Trina Schart Hyman).  Hershel is a traveler who is glad to find a friendly village for the first night of Hanukkah, but the villagers reveal that they are plagued by goblins that hate Hanukkah and stop them from celebrating.  Hershel volunteers to spend each night of Hanukkah in the synagogue to see if he can outwit a series of goblins.  In order to banish the goblins forever, he’ll have to arrange for the king of the goblins himself to light the Hanukkah candles on the last night of the holiday.

The 1996 Hanukkah USA 32 cents stamp

The 1996 Hanukkah USA 32 cents stamp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This book is an absolutely lovely way to bring this holiday to life for children.  The story is genuinely exciting, and Hanukkah traditions are woven into the narrative in a way that allows children who celebrate this holiday to share their own experiences.  The overall message is a positive spin on a traditional trickster tale: Hershel overcomes the goblins by using his wits and his bravery.  The cast of goblins offers lots of opportunities for silly, dramatic voices.  For me, perhaps the most appealing part of the book is the illustrations.  I’ve always loved Trina Schart Hyman’s work – she manages to straddle the line between cartoonish personality and detailed realism, a style I find particularly effective in her folk tales and fairy tales.  Here the goblins are dramatic but silly, and the king of the goblins is scary without being gory or graphic.  Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins makes a wonderful addition to any holiday library, whether you celebrate Hanukkah in your home or not.  Stay tuned next week for more holiday picks, and happy reading!