Not all nursery rhyme collections are created equal. That is something you discover when you have small children. A parent, even a children’s librarian type parent, will inevitably come to a shocking realization sometime during their child’s early years that when you read a nursery rhyme, the kiddo really and truly seems to love it. Nursery rhymes, far from simply being “good for the child” in some lofty, educated manner, have stuck around as long as they have because they really and truly do speak to the kids. The cadences and rhythms and images are incomparable, and that is regardless of nation or heritage. So as you seek out new nursery rhyme books, you begin to fancy yourself a kind of connoisseur. Some authors provide the classics in an effective manner (Lobel, de Paola, etc.) while others seem to be finding their footing. And really, how many ways can you re-imagine Little Boy Blue anyway? One thing you don’t find in a lot of nursery rhyme collections? Diversity. You pick up something like Over the Hills and Far Away and you see that “more than 70 celebrated artists” are included. It ain’t lying. It also ain’t the white white world we’re so used to in nursery rhyme collections. Tsimshian and Creole, Jamaican and Australian, Chinese American and Chippewa, this is a book that not only speaks to a wider audience than nursery rhyme collections of the past, it’s cleverly constructed and perfectly illustrated to boot. Hammill has clearly created the very first nursery rhyme collection of note for the 21st century.
Read the publication page of the book and you will be told that “Over the Hills and Far Away gathers poems from various parts of the English-speaking world, including Great Britain, the Caribbean, Australia, and the United States. Regional spellings and usage have been retained in order to preserve the integrity of the originals.” Fair enough, and I understand why this statement reads the way it does, but it does run the risk of leading the casual reader to believe that this book only collects poems from the English-speakers of the world. Happily, even the most cursory flip through will relieve you of that mistake (to say nothing of reading the Introduction). Because if there is one thing the nursery rhyme books of your average library lack, it is diversity. Generally speaking, if a person wants to find Inuit, Jamaican, Latino, or South African nursery rhymes, you find separate collections of them and that’s that. Almost never do you find them integrated seamlessly with English and American rhymes. Hammill notes in her Introduction that “Nowhere… have I found a wide-ranging collection that sits alongside these Mother Goose favorites and injects fresh life into them – providing a genuine intercultural experience.” Why? Research. Dedication. It takes a single-minded intensity to not only track them down but to also pair each and every one with just the right artist.
And the artists, in this particular case, are jaw-dropping. It isn’t just the number of well known names on display. Certainly Mo Willems, Shaun Tan, Lucy Cousins, Ed Young, Jon Klassen, Shirley Hughes, Jerry Pinkney and so on and such are impressive right from the get go. It’s also the fact that there are a great number of artists working here who are not, first and foremost, famous names. Hammill says in her opening that these artists included both the established and the emerging, as well as winner of an Illustration Competition for U.K. art students.
And how do these illustrators do? I was pleased. Every collection out there is going to have its stronger and weaker elements. So there were some artists who had clearly put a lot of time and thought into their art, while others seemed to phone it in. The Marcia Williams take on “Old Mother Hubbard” reminded me of the poem in Nursery Rhyme Comics which also turned the rhyme into sequential comic art (it really lends itself to the form well). Meanwhile Eric Carle’s art is just a series of animals taken from his previously published books. Jerry Pinkney created original art of a familiar character when he referenced his Caldecott Honor title Noah’s Ark in the rhyme “Who Built the Ark?” Sometimes the artists alleviate potential creepiness (as with Gus Gordon’s rather charming if carnivorous “Algy Saw a Bear”) while others add to it (I’m thinking of the uber-sketchy men peering at the cheerful girl eating her food alongside the rhymes “Brow Bender”, “Earkin-Hearkin”, and “Knock at the Door”). But by some great good fortune, the bulk of the work is very strong, charming, and actually honestly interesting to kids. Let’s not forget that little factor.
I was charmed by the art. I was taken with the selection. But the real reason Hammill’s work on this book blew me away as much as it did? It’s simple. The woman has a gift for pairing complimentary rhymes together. As the mother of a 3-year-old and a new baby I’ve done my due diligence and read every nursery rhyme book I could get my hands on. Yet while artists like Tomie dePaola and Arnold Lobel would pair similar rhymes together in clever ways (rain poems on one page, love poems on another), Hammill sort of kicks everything up to another level. First there are the pairings that are so obvious you’re shocked you haven’t seen them before. “Yankee Doodle” next to “The Grand Old Duke of York”. Or gluttonous “Hannah Bantry” with “Jack Sprat” and wife. In her introduction, Hammill notes that in her research she “came upon anthologies of parallel rhymes and verse that have entered and enhanced the English lexicon from Asia, the Caribbean, and African, Native-American, and Hispanic cultures and elsewhere.” It reminds me of that old collection of world fairy and folktales World Tales collected by Idries Shah, which noted similarities in single stories throughout different cultures. Here you’ll see how well some poems pair. Some pairs are the lighthearted kind mentioned above. Others have quite a bit more to say, as when “Hush-a-bye, Baby” sits alongside the Chippewa “Little Baby, Sleep” and artist Olivia Lomenech Gill crafts a fascinating construct of “baby” King George falling off the tree while, on the other page, a Chippewa mother holds her child’s cradle board.
In the back of the book you will find a list of sources used to find some of these poems and rhymes. This is followed by a section thanking directly some of the people who helped to find these rhymes, like Pascale Arpin, coordinator of Arts Programming at Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association and Ashley Bryan who opened “his extensive personal library to me and introducing me to important collections of African and Caribbean verse and rhyme”. Many of the collections sourced are older, from the 1929 rhymes from the Bureau of American Ethnology to the 1900 Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes. I’m no nursery rhyme historian so I take it on faith that Hammill took steps to ensure accuracy where the poems are concerned. You need a certain level of trust in these cases. I leave it to others to ascertain one source’s authenticity over another’s.
Gone are the days when the publishing industry could put out nursery rhyme collection after nursery rhyme collection and not have to think about the diverse audience who might be reading the poems. Generally when nursery rhymes are produced these days the hat tip made to cultural diversity rests squarely on the shoulders of the illustrator, not the selection of poems themselves. What sets Over the Hills and Far Away apart is the fact that not only has Elizabeth Hammill found a wide range of interesting and intelligent rhymes, she has found ways to interweave them with similar rhymes from other cultures to create a real understanding of why rhymes from children are universally desired and important. For all that we talk about diverse books for kids, I’ve never heard anyone suggest that someone create a book like this before. Now it is here. If you own only one nursery rhyme collection on your shelves, own this one.
On shelves March 10th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- World Tales collected by Idries Shah
- Nursery Rhyme Comics edited by Chris Duffy
- Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal by Paul Fleischman
Misc: See more images from the book here.