Mother Goose Land: Building a Shared World

Fictional universes are nothing new in children’s literature and it’s been acknowledged for some time that contemporary techniques for worldbuilding so widely used in science fiction, fantasy, video games were explored by authors like Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, and Charles Kingsley in the mid-nineteenth century.

Makers of alphabet, toy, and cloth books also began to visualize shared worlds within the children’s literature universe around the same time.  By 1871, an uncredited artist created a set of puzzle pictures in The Alphabet of Fairy Tales  in the Routledge Shilling Toy Book series.  In the shadow of the house that Jack built, the forty thieves glower at Goody Two Shoes, while Little Thumb scampers by in his seven league boots, and Mother Goose hovers overhead.   The rhyming captions provides clues as to the identity of the various characters in this enchanted space where no one from the real world has blundered into.

Mother Goose takes on a new role in the early twentieth century presiding over a land populated by the familiar characters in nursery songs and lullabies, which over time has taken many increasing ingenious forms.  Polly-Peters Picture-Map and Guide to Mother Goose Land (ca. 1921), draws the realm in the shape of the good old dame in her steeple hat  flying on a goose, with their features superimposed on the northernmost reaches of the continent and the bird’s webbed feet trailing over the sea.

Gathered within her outline are her silly subjects, all recognizable from the original ditties, but otherwise unconnected by any geographical logic.  Alan and Janet Ahlberg did not need maps on the endpapers to their two iterations of Mother Goose Land in Each Peach Pear Plum or the Jolly Postman series because the action centered on a ramble through the countryside in the first, and a mailman on his bicycle delivering the post to the residents in the second.  While readers cannot give directions from one house to the next on the mailman’s route, they know that names of the different houses and their addresses because they are printed on the envelopes in the book.

One of the few startling narratives set in this country is William Pene du Bois’ Mother Goose for Christmas (c.1972), a  miniature cozy mystery. The old lady is a poet and proprietor of a book shop with an attached day care in a tiny village that has no policeman.  On Christmas Eve, the villagers are horrified to see two strange  suspicious looking men dragging the dame and Goosey Gander towards the boarded-up bakery.  Soon after they break and enter, clouds of black smoke rise from the chimney and the concerned villagers, terrified that Mother Goose is being mistreated and Goosey Gander roasted, build a bonfire to keep them warm so they can sing Christmas carols all night and forestall disaster. By morning, the smoke is bearing the delicious smells  of sugar and spice, but fears are still running high.  Suddenly the shutters of the bakery burst open, the thugs appear in pure white aprons and wide smiles just as Mother Goose flies in to introduce them to Simple Simon and the Knave of Hearts, the new owners of the Queen’s Bakery.

More recently Chris Raschka and Vladimir Radunsky compiled Mother Goose of Pudding Lane: A Small Tall Tale (2019) a typically quirky collaboration which is a nursery rhyme anthology that is also tells the story of Mother Goose and her husband Isaac, based on the hoary old urban legend that the patron saint of nursery rhymes and fairy tales was a real person, an Elizabeth Goose living in Boston at the end of the seventeenth century.  The author and illustrator cleverly frame rhymes as responses, comments, or extensions to  the stages of the Gooses’ lives.  The newly weds start a family immediately and it grows so large so quickly that Elizabeth herself is cast as the old woman in the shoe.  The object that looks like a coal scuttle at the bottom is really the heel of the family home.

As long as Mother Goose Land belongs to no one and everyone, there can never be a definitive iteration, but rather many delightfully different ones from which we can enjoy.

Some Baby Memory Books from around the World

They go by many names…  Baby books, baby journals,  baby milestone books, and domestic baby diaries are a few of them.  To facilitate the tracking of information, memories, and storage of precious photos, designers experiment with the format and layout.  Does the new mother want prompts or lots of white space to fill up with thoughts and observations?   Should she start recording her experiences  as soon as she knows she is pregnant, the beginning of the journey to motherhood, or wait until the baby arrives?   Is a choice of bindings in a rainbow of colors important so the book will fit in with the décor of the nursery or master bedroom?  Or would a completely customizable product, such as InScribe Publishing’s babEbook make the process more fun, more personal, and much easier, whatever the mother’s circumstances?

As showcases of illustration and repositories of data about individuals, these highly ephemeral books have been collectible for some time.   The Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library at UCLA has been accumulating titles from the late Victorian era to the present day and now has six hundred examples spanning 125 years.   Some of Cotsen’s baby books, along with the first edition of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s  Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946) and other treasures, were brought out for members of Princeton’s BabyLab when they visited Special Collections in October.

Because the milestones of an infant’s first twelve months are more or less agreed upon, a baby book’s contents are relatively predictable.  After recording birth weight and length comes a series of firsts: first tooth, shoe, word, etc.  It’s the illustrator’s challenge to capture the excitement of the moment in a way that will evoke pleasant memories later.  Ella Pipping’s Jag [Me], a Swedish baby book first published in 1937, was undoubtedly reprinted many times on the strength of its headpieces by the mother-daughter team of Signe Hammarsten-Jansson and Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins.   No Swedish is necessary to figure out where to enter most of the different statistics, but no information about a baby was ever entered on this copy’s pristine pages.

Sugiura Hisiu’s Kodakara [Baby Book] (Tokyo: Misukoshi Department Store, 1909) is also perfectly preserved.  I wonder if many recipients of such beautiful books felt they were too pretty to write in them, even though the more likely explanation is that the new mother was simply too tired and busy to begin, much less keep up.  Many of the full-page illustrations are charming depictions of little children, full of surprising details about the coexistence of Eastern and Western fashions in Japan.The earliest of the three baby books shown to BabyLab was Baby’s Record (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, c.1898) illustrated by Maud Humphrey, beloved creator of sticky-sweet pictures of little children.  It’s a well-established urban legend that the mother of Humphrey Bogart was responsible for the famous Gerber logo baby.  She wasn’t.   The  Cotsen copy of the Record was given to “Baby,” by Mrs. Leo Fleishman (presumably a family friend or relative) and “Baby” was Edward Jacques Ruff, the son born to Joseph Ruff and Rosa Rosenthal Ruff November 22, 1910 in Mexico City. His first shoe is shown to the right.  The Ruffs appear to have been devout Jews and recorded little Edward’s first prayer in transliterated Hebrew  and descrubed his first visit to temple with his grandfather at age three.  The handwritten memorandum reveals that Edward “was very good.  Said Amen about a minute after the rest of the congregation which very much embarrassed his grandfather.”

The three books could not be more different in appearance, but they do have one thing in common: baby’s vaccination for small pox is among the milestones of the first year.  In Sweden, it looks as if the doctor came to the house.  Edward was just four months and three days when he was inoculated.   Look carefully at the little Japanese baby and you’ll see he’s crying and picking at the red spots on his arm.Very little has been written about the history of the baby book before the 1870s, when the first ones were published.  The only scholarly article I could find, “The Observing Eye;: A Century of Baby Diaries” by Doris Wallace in a 1994 issue of Human Development suggests that German psychologists who were leaders in their profession agreed agreement that the systematic observation of very young children complemented experimental and testing methodologies.

Wallace seems not to have been familiar with parent diarists in England before Charles Darwin.  Novelist Mrs. Gaskell managed to cover the first six months of her daughter Marianne’s life, the very thoughtful, insightful, and loving notes making it a fascinating document to read.  She was almost certainly following in the footsteps of Maria and Richard Edgeworth, who showed parents in their highly influential Practical Education (1798), the scientific value of detailed anecdotes about child behavior for the way they revealed the child’s thought processes as they matured.  The compilation of such a diary, the Edgeworths argued, was the way to realize Thomas Reid’s wish to “obtain a distinct and full history of all that hath passed in the mind of a child from the beginning of life and sensation till it grows up to the use of reason.”   Easier said than done, but it remains a noble goal for recording the mundane details of babyhood, when what mother really needs is a good night’s sleep.