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.
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.
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.