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Nursery Rhyme Investigation: Mary Had a Little Lamb

It was the shock of my lifetime to discover that kids really do dig nursery rhymes.  To be a bit more specific about it, my kid in particular.  Here she was, not even a year and a half old, and suddenly she could not get enough of those collections by Tomie dePaola and Arnold Lobel.  And it all started with a lamb.  A little one at that.

I’d received the Tomie dePaola board book of Mary Had a Little Lamb in the great Molly donation of 2011.  It’s signed by Mr. dePaola himself and if I were a practical woman I’d probably mount it and hang it in some fashion on my wall.  Instead, I allowed my grubby, grimy, adorable spawn to paw through it.  No gnawing.  I drew the line there.  But if she wanted to read it (and she seemed to) all power to her.

After I sang the book to her the first time she was enthralled.  Seriously, nothing like this book had ever enraptured her.  I’d sort of assumed that the 19th century setting and subtle palette would not appeal to her baby brain.  So wrong was I.  I then started to experiment.  I brought home other Mary Had a Little Lamb titles.  Each time I did the kiddo delighted.  She’d compare pictures, their similarities and differences.  She got her own little white lamb stuffed animal and would carry it with her when the books were read.  This all culminated to the point where when we visited a downtown Kalamazoo city creche this past Christmastime, it was the plaster lambs that were the hit of the day.  She’s sheep crazy, this kid.

So it all got me to thinking: Whence Mary?  Whence that little lamb?  And how do different picture books of the duo stack up in the long run?

First stop, I picked up my copy of Albert Jack’s Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes.  Truth be told, I’ve grown wary of this resource.  It sometimes seems to come up with more theories than facts, but on the subject of Mary it was loquacious.  There was admittedly some speculation as to whether or not the poem was written as a kind of Christian homily.  You know.  Mary.  The lamb.  The true origins of the poem come from one Sarah Josepha Hale who, depending on whom you ask, submitted the poem to Dr. Lowell Mason when he asked writers to contribute songs and rhymes for the Boston school system.  It was a big time hit from the start.  Some speculation arose as to whether or not the poem was written by Hale or by a John Roulstone instead and whether or not there really was a Mary and a lamb.  Whatever the case, it was fun to learn that in Sterling, Mass. there’s a statue of the lamb in the town center.


Back to the book that started this all.  I found that Tomie dePaola wrote an extensive piece online about this book, as well as why he chose it, and the fact that he found he added fuel to the fire when he credited the poem to Sarah Josepha Hale and not Mr. Roulstone.  Reading Mr. dePaola’s funny and well-researched piece I realized all too late who Sarah was.

Do these titles ring any bells?


Yup!  Sarah was the same Sarah who we credit today with the holiday of Thanksgiving.  Geez oh marie, the woman was busy.

Then I started looking at other picture book editions of the poem.  Granted, I was limited to in print versions available through my library system.  Still, my library system is NYPL, and that ain’t small bananas.

First up, my favorite version, and an import at that:

Mary Had a Little Lamb by Kate Willis-Crowley

This is a British import so you won’t find that many copies floating around the States at the moment.  If you do find some, they’re worth discovering.  First off, it’s the only multicultural Mary I could find.  Second, she’s very adventuresome.  Usually when you get the “everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go” line Mary is sleeping or walking benignly somewhere.  In this book Mary has just become a modern day Alice, following a rabbit burrow up top again, while the poor lamb muddles through the dark tunnel after her.  The book is shorter in its verses than most, cutting out the part where the lamb rests its head on Mary’s arm or kids are instructed to bind animals gently, but it’s still fun.  Particularly when you take into account how harrowed that poor teacher is.  She truly does look to be at her wits end.  There’s a rather bizarre Silence of the Lambs moment at the end where we see Mary wearing a paper plate lamb face that looks just eerie, but beyond that the story is keen from start to finish.

Next, a book that isn’t afraid to go full-text.

Mary Had a Little Lamb, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

Like dePaola, she credits Hale as the author.  Unlike him she includes a note at the end discussing the poem’s origins.  This pairs very well with the Willis-Crowley version and is actually one of the more playful Marys out there.  The lamb is the only one I’ve seen where, ejected from the school, he “lingers near” by sitting, morose, on a swing set, eyeing the doors of the school.  The most colorful version of the story I know.

Mary Had a Little Lamb by Sara Varon as found in Nursery Rhyme Comics

Varon’s style and storytelling are on full display with this one.  The colors are a bit more muted than I’d like but you can’t help but love the fact that this is the only lamb who actually follows Mary to school with the hopes of getting its own education (note the jaunty backpack and the fact that it snaps up a seat in class).

None of these are to be confused with

Mary and Her Little Lamb by Will Moses

Subtitled “The True Story Behind the Nursery Rhyme” Moses goes where few authors have dared and not only brings the “real” story to live but credits Roulstone as the author!  And the debate rages and rages on.  The kiddo liked this one mostly because she adores the Will Moses nursery rhymes book and also because this one included a lot of barns.  She likes barns right now.

Any others you’d think were worth mentioning?  Lay ’em on me.  I’d love to add to her repertoire.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. There is another version of Mary Had a Little Lamb with an African American girl. It’s done with photographs by Bruce McMillan. It’s a favorite in my library, we have multiple copies. Take a look:

    I do want to see if I can get my hands on the one by Kate Willis-Crowley. I am so glad you featured it here.

  2. Then there are the parodies, say Jack Lechner’s Mary Had a Little Lamp illustrated by Bob Staake.

  3. We LOVE Iza Trapani’s variations on different nursery rhymes, including Mary Had A Little Lamb. Thanks for sharing about the controversy of the origin. I hadn’t read that before.

  4. Sadly out of print, but a favorite of mine, is Mary Had a Little Lamb illustrated by textile artist Salley Mavor. The book credits Hale as the original author, but in end notes mentions the debate. Unfortunately I do not own a copy to re-read the notes, but perhaps NYPL has one.

  5. Matt Faulkner, the illustrator of Thank You, Sarah is coming to my school (and later to the Bookbug in Kalamazoo) on Thursday, March 28!

  6. I love the Sara Varon backpacking lamb. LOL!

  7. Very much looking forward to Mary Had a Little Llama by Angela Dominguez! Also in Spanish.

  8. My husband just discovered this review- thank you do much, Elizabeth. I’m simply delighted that you and your daughter enjoyed my book. Literally cackled with laughter at the Silence of the Lambs comment!