“Mother Goose was a real person?!” my nine-year-old asked in confusion as we walked along the Freedom Trail in Boston last weekend. Our tour guides (my brother and sister-in-law) had pointed out some of the famous people buried in the Granary Cemetery, including John Hancock, Ben Franklin’s parents, and Mother Goose.
I admit I hadn’t given much thought to whether Mother Goose was a real person or not despite having written an old blog post about the value of nursery rhymes. I figured that her identity, if known at all, was probably lost to history. It turns out that I was right. The woman buried in Boston was probably not the woman behind the rhymes, but legend has it that Mary (or Elizabeth) Goose enthralled the children in her community (including sixteen of her own) with stories and poems which were eventually published. Is this true? I have no idea, but I like the story.
Whoever she may have been, Mother Goose has endured as an almost ubiquitous part of childhood in the English-speaking world for hundreds of years. Among the loads of picture books that offer the rhythm and rhyme that our little language learners need, Mother Goose’s rhymes have stayed in print. Perhaps it’s adult nostalgia that drives the demand? Perhaps there’s something universal about the poems or the time period they represent?
Whatever the reason, there are many, many editions from which to choose for your little ones. I happen to like Mary Engelbreit’s version for the way Mother Goose’s poems are described in the introduction written by children’s literature historian Leonard S. Marcus: “Her words are both merry and wise. Mother Goose rhymes meet children at eye level with their colorful characters, disarming honesty, and playful feeling for life.”
Of course, I think we can agree that some of the rhymes could use an update like the one that Jane Cabrera gives to “The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” In Cabrera’s version, the Old Woman is resourceful and capable as she cares for her many children by solving problems, fixing stuff, and working hard. A brief author’s note shares Cabrera’s desire to celebrate mothers with a version that showed a mom who could take care of her family “despite being very out-numbered!” That’s a sentiment I can get behind.
May 1st is the day Mother Goose is celebrated in schools and libraries around the country. Even if you think you’ve outgrown her poems or you think they aren’t relevant to modern life, take a moment on that day to explore the legend of the person behind the poems and select one of the many editions of her work to share with a child. Let the bouncy rhythm and the silly rhymes remind you that “childish” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it’s just right.