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.

Marks in Books 11 : Hanukkah Gift Inscriptions

To celebrate the eight days of Hanukkah in 2022, here’s a post from a few years ago about books that a mother gave as gifts to her children during the Jewish holiday in 1966…

The gift exchanges, which are central to American winter holiday rituals, are not so easy to document.   Opening presents within the family circle may be a familiar subject for advertisements, book and magazine illustrations, and family photographs, but how often is it possible to reconstruct who got what from whom any given year?   Gift tags, with hand-written notes identifying the giver and the recipent go the way of wrapping paper and ribbon, as do lists of presents made for the purpose of writing thank-you notes.

So it was pure luck to discover a handful of books from the Cotsen family’s collection that Mrs. Cotsen gave to her children during the eight days of Hanukkah in 1966.  Mother carefully wrote the child’s name and the occasion on the blue family bookplate illustrated with a faun by Robert Anning Bell.  And her picture book selections were so imaginative…

There were, of course, books appropriate for the season.  The older of her two sons received a copy of A First Chanukkah Word Book.He also received from his mother a rather sophisticated picture  book with see-through pages by Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson, featuring her characters from the Moomintroll series.  It was designed in such a way that there was no good place to put the book plate!For her younger daughter, there was a book about nature issued by Ladybird Books, the English equivalent of Golden Books, that was so successful that the publisher never needed to expand the market overseas.  Perhaps Mrs. Cotsen found it in a London bookshop and brought it home. The littlest member of the Cotsen clan got the book in a most unusual format about a little bear cub who did everything his mother told him to grow up big and strong.  The story is imposed on a giant uncut signature, which is folded up like a map and  placed in a folder with a ribbon tie.  The reader has to unfold the sheet to see how the cub changed during the course of his regimen…The last book given as a present to the entire family in 1966, was a traditional fairy tale retold as a Hanukkah story, complete with snow, dragons, and a good reb overcoming an evil one:  It still finds its way into lists of books for the Jewish holiday.   And when it was read aloud, everyone liked it.   Mrs. Cotsen gets credit for identifying a story that would bring the family together.In memory of Florence Sacks, a wise and steadfast friend.