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I suspect that the vast majority of today’s adults (at least English-speaking ones in the western world) grew up with an awareness of nursery rhymes. Many learned how to read, spell, sing, rhyme and count with the help of such little poems; they are part and parcel of everyday language and common understanding. Just saying the first lines would prompt most people to repeat the rest of the verse: Jack be nimble; Polly put the kettle on; Little boy blue; Jack Sprat; Georgie Porgie; Little Miss Muffet; Little Bo-Peep; Little Jack Horner; Three Blind Mice; Jack and Jill; Baa baa black sheep; One, two, buckle my shoe; and Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. I could go on and on.
For anyone interested, Wikipedia provides an excellent history of the genre. It seems most modern versions of nursery rhymes date from the 17th and 18th centuries and many began as lullabies. The first collections to be published came in the mid-1700’s: Tommy Thumb’s Song Book and Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (both in 1744; could this be the world’s first published sequel?).
Even the simplest things In life come under scrutiny and revisionism. Nursery rhymes are no exception, many deemed by academics and historians as having deeper, hidden meanings, with radical or revolutionary bases. It’s a fun exercise, but little real evidence to back up the claims exists.
Many nursery rhyme collections have also been beautifully illustrated (e.g. Arthur Rackham, one of my favorites). When we were young, our parents gave us a wonderful collection, Lavender’s Blue: A Book of Nursery Rhymes. Kathleen Mary Lines (1902–1988), a book critic, editor and librarian from Canada (Edmonton, Alberta), put the anthology together in 1954. Since then, it’s been reprinted 15 times at least, an indication of its success. To my mind, it was most notable for its illustrations – by the accomplished British illustrator, Harold Jones (1904-1992). (They also combine talents on another book: Noah and the Ark.) I can recall my mother reading many of these rhymes to me; it is a wonderful memory to retain.
Jones’ work was recognized by several organizations (the British and American Library Associations, most notably). Not only was Jones was awarded a “Special Commendation” in 1954 by the UK Library and Information Association (CILIP, as it’s called now) as part of its annual Carnegie Medal consideration, the excellence of his work also led to the creation of the companion Kate Greenaway Medal for distinguished illustration. One critic has called Jones “perhaps the most original children’s book illustrator of the period”.
If you happen to check the Carnegie/Greenaway site out and you’re wondering what a Yoto (one of the sponsors for the award) is and why the company is involved – here’s the answer.
More samples of Jones’ work can be found here and here. The author of this site notes that Jones “had a highly characteristic use of colour and line, refusing the easy option and visual cliche for charged characterisation and a most unusual sense of composition.” The cheerful illustrations, with muted colors, evocative scenes and expressive faces, remind me of the British London underground and travel posters of Frank Newbould, which were typical of the era between the two world wars. [Certainly worthy of a future post.]
The family book disappeared over time, but a new edition became available about the time my son was born. I couldn’t resist buying it again, hoping it would delight him as much as it did me. Although I’m not sure he really took to it (so many more options existed in the 1980’s than in the mid-1950’s), going through the book certainly pleased me. Many years later, I found a first edition in a used book store in Langford, B.C. Naturally, it, too, found its way into my collection.
Cover Photo by Dimitri Iakymuk on Unsplash