Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 7, 2010

“Sticks and stones”

I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book, ed. Iona and Peter Opie (1947), illus. Maurice Sendak, Candlewick Press, 160 pp.

For a while, I bought every Sendak-illustrated book I could find, which is at first why I picked up this compendium of children’s rhymes and chants; now, however, I value it for the rest of its contents.  The Opies (Peter Opie died in 1982) were folklorists, among the first to collect children’s tales, games, poems and songs, using children as their informants. Their work has contributed to current thinking about children’s psychological and emotional development (Bruno Bettelheim references them twice in his classic The Uses of Enchantment.)

The cleverness of pre-teens should surprise no one who has spent time with a two-year-old; they understand more of the world than we often suspect, and their coping mechanisms are generally verbal. They’ve created poems to be shouted while jumping rope and playing games, or to be whispered in the back of a boring class or while resentfully lying in bed at nap time. These word games give voice to the fears, angers, jealousies and joys of childhood.

My daughter’s favorite, when she was young, was a simple counting rhyme:

I one my mother/I two my mother/I three my mother/I four my mother/I five my mother/I six my mother/I seven my mother/I ate my mother.

Sendak’s accompanying three-color drawing shows a nursing baby as it proceeds to swallow its entire mother, and then dance happily in the final frame.

The Opies have organized the chants under headings like Insults, Guile — Malicious, Teasing and Repartee, and Book Desecration. There are also tamer categories such as Nonsense, Graces, Narratives, and Verbal Fun, but even these include some wild screeds.  Here’s the first one under Graces:

Bless the meat,/Damn the skin./Open your mouth/And cram it in.

They have also appended a useful few pages of notes, explaining sources, variants, and referents (George IV’s Queen Caroline, for one).  At least one chant (the one that begins “One fine day in the middle of the night”) dates from the 15th century; it seems children have always loved word play.

In her introduction to my edition, Iona Opie explains that children understand the importance of laughter as “antidote to the anxieties and disasters of life”, and she concludes with this:

It is a help, this book, in our universal predicament. We find we are born, so we might as well stay and do as well as we can, and while we are here we can at least enjoy the endearing absurdities of humankind.

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