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.

Adventures in Bookstores: Celebrating Read-A-Book Day 2022

In recognition of Read-A-Book Day 2022 (well, two days late), here’s a 2015 post Jeff Barton wrote about some great places to find books he discovered in Northern California.  At the end, he points eager readers to other posts about independent booksellers and foreign book fairs.

What does a bibliophile or a librarian who is interested in children’s books do on vacation?  Well, some of us like to look at bookstores and libraries (along with doing other things too, I hasten to add!). When I was at the ALA Annual Conference and Rare Books & Manuscripts “Preconference” in San Francisco and Oakland, sight-seeing  led me to  happen upon some amazing small bookshops, run by real book-lovers, by pure serendipity.  (For all the great aspects of having the world of books accessible via online shopping, nothing quite compares to just stumbling upon a bookstore or catching a glimpse of an attractive book cover or dust-jacket you’ve never seen before, does it?)

First, there was Village Books, in Ukiah, California, about 100 miles North of San Francisco.  We spotted this small shop across the street from our lunchtime retreat from 100+ degree heat.  As soon as we entered, I knew we’d found a great bookstore!  Even the check-out counter was covered with books, as you can see:

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Village Books, Ukiah, California

That introductory “prologue” was certainly borne out by another look around:

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Books from floor-to-ceiling, convenient reading spaces throughout… a bibliophile’s delight… mostly used books, but some new ones too.

Of particular interest to me were the sections with children’s (and young adult) books, packed almost to the rafters:

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And especially eye-catching was a dedicated children’s reading area, clearly meant to welcome young readers into a comfortable setting and encourage them to sit and read books of all sorts:

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But this is a bookstore after all, not a library, so what did we buy?

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Upper cover of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, with color-printed paper onlay (Harper & Bros., 1911) author’s collection

To name just a few, some nice French-language children’s books (for a YA reader learning French), a vintage copy of Lord of the Flies (bought by an adult for aforementioned YA reader, since Lord of the Flies seems to have fallen off the assigned list of books for middle schoolers), and a very nicely illustrated 1911 edition of Tom Brown’s School Days, with artwork by Louis Rhead, and a paper onlay on the upper cover that reminds us reminded me just how much work went into late 19th- and early 20th-century publisher’s bindings.

Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) is one of those “children’s classics,” hugely-influential and once widely read, but seldom read by child readers any more.  (Actually, a surprising number of “children’s classics” fall into the category of well-known but not much read now.)  It’s a landmark example of a “school story,” fiction focusing on children or adolescents within a school context (usually a boarding school), a genre especially popular in England from the mid- to late-1700s through the mid-1940s.  Some other prominent examples include: Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749) and Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899).

Think school stories are utterly passé?  Well, think again… J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels drew heavily on the genre — Hogwarts, focal point of the action, is, after all, a school, and most of the main characters are students or masters there — and many critics have discussed how Rowling both made use of and extended the school story genre.  Like Tom Brown, Harry Potter comes somewhat timidly to a new school, has to learn the ropes, and undergoes various trials and bullying in the course of making moral choices, learning about himself, and growing up.

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As that venerable and learned poet…says

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Poor old Benjy!

Although Tom Brown is set in Thomas Arnold’s reform-oriented Rugby School of the 1840s, the story details quite a bit of unruly hijinks by the boys, as well as a lot of fighting and some harrowing bullying — all of which no doubt fascinated boy readers, at whom the book seems clearly aimed. Rhead’s full-page illustrations in  this edition compellingly depicted many of these events, and in addition, he provided small historiated letters at the beginning of chapters, which I particularly like. A real window onto another era.

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But time to move on… How about continuing our bibliographic travelogue and moving from Northern California to Seattle … and from school stories to Wonderland?

Again, serendipity plays a major role in the story — sometimes you find bookstores where you would least expect to find them, as was the case for us in Seattle.  Seattle’s Pike Place Market is famous: the usual tourist souvenirs, fresh fruit and veggies, and lots and lots of fresh fish, including “flying fish,” tossed around by energetic fishmongers! (This fish-tossing is so renowned that it serves as the subject of a movie titled “FISH!,” which is about improving customer service, workplace morale, and motivating workers. If you don’t believe me, do a quick online search!)

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A fun place to visit — but hardly a place you’d expect to find a bookstore…  But tucked away in a downstairs corridor, around the corner from a cookie shop, a coffee bar, and a take-out food place, we happened to see a brightly-colored bookstore wedged into a space not much more than ten or fifteen feet wide: Lamplight Books.

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A glimpse inside the shop…

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Lamplight Books, Seattle Market.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cover of Through the Looking-Glass (Dodge & Co., 1909?) author’s collection

 

Sightseeing again took a back-seat to book-browsing, as we went through the hidden garden gate or down the rabbit hole into another magical world of books…

Among the books we discovered was a hard-cover second printing of one of Durrell’s Alexandra Quartet novels, well-read but still with its original dust-jacket — and still cheaper than a new paperback edition elsewhere — and an even more well-read 1909 edition of Through the Looking Glass by American publisher Dodge & Co., which interested me for several reasons.

First, the illustrations by Bessie Pease Guttmann present Alice as a dark-haired girl — quite unlike Tenniel’s depiction, but much like Carroll’s own artwork in his original Alice manuscript edition — with the Queen of Hearts as the blondie — and one looking very much like Tenniel’s chess piece depiction in Looking Glass, not a playing card or Queen Victoria parody a la Alice in Wonderland.

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But even more arresting were the unique markings and colorings in this copy of the book, presumably made by a child-reader. As we see on the pictorial endpapers, printed in a blue-outlined pattern, an apparently quite young reader has “embellished” things!  (I’d say she/he was young, based on the roughness of the coloring.)

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Blue-printed patterned endpapers colored by child reader.

And this embellishment continues throughout the book, whose blue-printed outline borders were apparently irresistible to the reader.  Sometimes, the child embellisher fully colored the illustrations on an entire page, and sometimes he/she has focused in only on details apparently of particular interest to him or her, as we can see in the instances below:

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Instances of selective coloring by child reader

This is pattern of varied “levels” of markings in children’s books is something I’ve observed before and discussed here on the Cotsen blog.  Was the reader of this book simply focusing on things of particular interest to her/him, or responding to the story and somehow trying to foreground characters and aspects discussed on particular pages by coloring them in there — in effect providing a reader’s commentary of sorts?  Of course, there’s no way to be sure. But since identifying agency by child-readers and making sense of reader-response is certainly a topic of considerable interest to those analyzing child readership today, I wonder if patterns of marking like those found in this book might conceivably shed some light on these areas of inquiry?

This copy of Through the Looking Glass also manifests evidence of another possible  sort of reader “appetite” on quite a number of pages, as we can see on the example below:

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It’s a little hard to tell what these are? Bite-marks?  If so, made by a child?  By several different children?  By the family dog?  Or just marks of rough handling?  They certainly look like bite marks to me!  And if so, what might this suggest to us about the reader(s) of this book or child readers, in general?  Along with the markings, this definitely suggests that this copy of Through the Looking Glass did indeed “find its reader” who extensively handled and “interacted with” the book in several ways, even if we can’t be sure that he/she necessarily read the text on the pages.

I think the signs of book use here also underscore an important aspect of children’s use of books; it’s frequently unpredictable — often spontaneous and unplanned — and thus it can be hard to “interpret” what this “evidence” means, as well as dangerous to read too much into this by adults who are coming along later and trying to investigate child reading.  Child readers leave a lot of clues, but how can we be sure that we’re “reading” them accurately from our adult critical vantage-point?  There’s always an element of speculation in this critical approach, isn’t there?

Apart from an opportunity to think about children’s marks in books and talk about a couple of interesting editions of children’s “classics,” I guess the broader “moral” of my story here is really to highlight that independent bookstores — and great ones too! — can still be found out there, sometimes when and where you least expect them.  There’s real pleasure to be had in browsing them with no particular book or aim in sight, especially if you’re a book-lover. Sometimes you find amazing things that you had no idea you were looking for! There can be real serendipitous pleasure in simple serendipity…

If you can’t pass by a bookstore without walking in,  you can read posts by Andrea and Minjie about their adventures in Cape Cod, Los Angeles, Shanghai, and Abu Dhabi