Monday, October 1, 2012

Mother Goose Musings

When I was a child living in Poland, I had a favorite book of poetry called Sto Bajek (100 Tales Sto By′ek ) by Jan Brzechwa (Yon Bzheh′va.) He was Poland’s equivalent of Dr. Seuss with his unleashed imagination, impeccable meter, wonderful rhythms, and playful language.  He wrote of talking trees and whining vegetables, fish mathematicians and arguing coat sleeves. The humor was preposterous and sure to bring on giggles, and the sounds and wordplay were pure joy. I could not get enough of his poems.

I could read and write before I turned six, and I attribute this to the many hours I spent listening to these verses, hearing the sounds, reciting them, looking at the words, and with my family’s help, putting the puzzle together.

At age seven I immigrated to the United States, and upon arrival my Aunt and Uncle gave me a big book of Mother Goose. Now I had the challenge of learning to speak and write in a whole new language, but results came quickly with this wonderful treasury of quirky old rhymes to inspire and teach me. Little did I know that someday I would extend many of them into picture books.

I always dreamed of becoming a children’s book author and illustrator, but I had no idea that the majority of my titles would be Mother Goose rhymes. It all started over twenty years ago, when my first publisher asked me to write and illustrate something well-known. We decided that nursery rhymes lent themselves well to extension. And so I came up with a story for The Itsy Bitsy Spider, starting with the original verse and then adding new verses to create a simple but not insignificant plot.

To my delight, the book was an instant hit with early educators. Preschool and kindergarten teachers from across the nation, who I met at conferences or who wrote to me, said the book was helpful in teaching children to read. Here are the reasons they cited: Children recognize the title and that piques their interest to look inside the book. Knowing the first verse gives them confidence to learn the rest of the verses. The repetition of the first line in each stanza (The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the...waterspout, kitchen wall, rocking chair...), the predictability of the rhyming sounds, and the added benefit of singing the verses accelerates learning.

Sadly, some teachers also told me that a percentage of their students were not familiar with nursery rhymes. They encouraged me to extend more of these verses into picture books and suggested their favorites: Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Row Row Row Your Boat and many others. I was happy to oblige. :-)

In creating these extensions, though I add my own twist, I strive to match not only the meter (which is critical), but also the essence of the original rhyme. In Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, I tried to maintain the wonder of a child gazing at the night sky, wishing on a star. In Baa Baa Black Sheep, the focus was on asking the sheep for something: "Have you any wool?" (I had kittens asking for milk, a horse asking for hay, etc.) In Row, Row, Row Your Boat, I continued the adventure of merrily rowing a boat down the stream, though not always so gently. 

Usually I leave the first verse intact. Only once did I make a change and that was in Froggie Went A-Courtin’, which has the line: "with a sword and pistol by his side." I changed it to: "with a rose and chocolates by his side." I thought Froggie stood a much better chance of finding love with flowers and sweets than with deadly weapons. :-)

When I visit schools, I start my presentation by singing one or two of my books to the children. Usually we sing the first verse together and then I sing the rest. Sometimes they are quite surprised by the new verses and try to sing along with me, repeating the traditional one. They are especially surprised by my book Shoo Fly in which I used the original verse as a refrain, but changed it a bit (after the first time).

Original verse/first refrain:
Shoo fly don’t bother me,
Shoo fly don’t bother me,       
Shoo fly! Don’t bother me--       
I belong to somebody.           

Two other refrains:

Shoo fly don’t bother me!
Go fly to Tennessee.
Leave on the count of three--
Can’t you see you’re bugging me?
Shoo fly don’t bother me!
Go spread your wings and flee
Across the great blue sea,
All the way to Waikiki.

"Look how many different “E” sounds I had to come up with: flee, three, Tennessee, Waikiki..." I tell the children. And then I ask them to think of some other words that rhyme with "me."

The sounds of words, and especially rhyming words, certainly enchanted me as a child and instilled in me a love of language. I am honored and gratified to have my books used in classrooms, and I hope the words I conjure up and the pictures I paint bring joy to my wonderful little readers.

To learn more about Iza Trapani and her books, please visit her at and check out her blog, In and Out of My Studio.

Click here for a list of Iza's books, including Haunted Party, the perfect read for a fun Halloween treat!