Iona Opie’s Babies: An Unsentimental Anthology (1990) Illustrated by Bob Graham: Mewling, Puking, and Pooping

 “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

Carl Sandburg, Remembrance Rock (1948), chapter 2.

At first the infant, Mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms.”

Shakespeare, As You Like It, (1599),  II. vii.

One of the above didn’t make the  cut in Iona Opie’s anthology of poems, songs, quotable quotes, and anecdotes about the less admissible feelings babies inspire in new parents, siblings, the childless, and anyone who wonders momentarily if it wasn’t all a huge mistake.

It may come as a surprise to those who revere the monumental works of scholarship on the oral culture and lore of childhood Iona Opie co-authored with her husband Peter, that she did not labor under the illusion that normal boys and girls trailed clouds of glory as a matter of course. Much closer to the mark is this wonderfully succinct characterization of young human beings in the  Lore and Language of Children (1959) as “the greatest of savage tribes.”   This volume was not intended for seekers of sticky-sweet, inspirational sayings for baby shower invitations or birth announcements: it is for someone walking the floor with a colicky infant or anyone who has changed one too many diapers in one morning—the people on the front line of childcare day in and day out those first five exhausting years. And, I suppose, those who survived the experience, still love their children, and can laugh about it.

Cotsen recently acquired sixty-eight of the pen-and-ink and wash drawings by Australian illustrator Bob Graham, recipient of the 2000 Smarties and 2002 Kate Greenaway awards and a 2012 nominee for Hans Christian Andersen Award, executed with glee for Iona’s least-known and funniest work about childhood, which is a particular favorite of mine,   An added bonus is a three-ring binder containing Iona’s typescript of an interim version of the manuscript.

Here are some of Graham’s droll drawings and the selections (or excerpts) they accompany.

Paternal disillusionment

Needles and pin, needles, and pins,/ When a man marries his trouble begins;/ Blankets and sheets, blankets and sheets,/ When a man marries he’s bothered wi’ geits [children]


Paternal schizophrenia

Thou enviable being!/ No storms, no clouds, in thy blue sky forseeing,/ Play on, play on,/ My elfin John!/ Toss the light ball—bestride the stick–/ (I knew so many cakes would make him sick!) With fancies buoyant as the thistledown,/ Promptin the face grotesque, and antic brisk/ With many a lamblike frisk–/ (He’s got the scisssors, snipping at your gown!)/  Thou pretty opening rose!/ (Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!)/ Balmy, and breathing music like the South,’ (He really brings my heart into my mouth!)/ Fresh as the morn, and brilliant as its star–/ (I wish that window had an iron bar!)/ Bold as the hawk, yet gentle as the dove–/ (I tell you what, my love,/ I cannot write, unless he’s sent above!)

Thomas Hood, “Parental Ode to my Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months,” Blackwood’s Magazine, Feb. 1837.

An Old Bachelor’s Meditation

What a lot of nasty little ugly babies in the streets,/ Being wheeled about in those confounded little chairs one meets!/ I mean those Perambulators, pushed by stupid, careless, blind,/ Lazy dawdling, idle, addle-headed servant girls behind./ Litte screaming chits of creatures, little wryfaced roaring brats,/ With their little absurd bows and feathers in their silly hats,/ Foolish little coats and jackets, flimsy little fancy frocks:/ Chubby faces, turned-up noses, and preposterous curly locks! 

“Perambulators and Pedestrians or, Mr. Crosswig’s Annoyance”

Toilet-training: The victim’s view

Who took me from my nice warm cot,/ And sat me on the cold cold pot/ Whether I wanted to or not?/  My Mother.

A parody of the classic19th-century poem on female self-sacrifice by Ann Taylor, “My Mother.”

Learning from mistakes

Once the pixies stole a baby,/ But it’s only fair to say/ That they very soon returned it,/ And on the very self-same day: /Who blames ‘em? 

Anon. Recitations, ed. B. Heitland, 1919.

At least they are adorable some of the time…