FORTUNATELY MOTHER GOOSE is a grand old party; she has been flourishing for centuries without showing signs of debility. One can hope, therefore, that she will remain vigorous and continue on her high-flying way, however publishers may pelt her with new and pseudo-improved editions.
What is this constant urge to redo her visage and reimagine all her favorite companions? There is a precedent, to be sure, since the original rhymes contained timely political and social commentary. Multitudes of versifiers (myself included) have transported Mother Goose into urban traffic, space-age rockets, even feminist frameworks, and illustrators from the Victorian age to the Doonesbury era have drawn and cornered her.
Once in a while, an illustrator is inspired, and the familiar chants take on an energy and verve that we had been lulled into losing. Sometimes, though, the exercise comes across as a make-work project for an idling artist or as a set of crass cash-register jingles. One senses then that there has been a puffing attempt to trade on the reputation of the artist, the result of in-house memos suggesting that maybe this package could sell like Sendak or be a bargain Briggs.
One such attempt is Mercer Mayer's Little Monster's Mother Goose . It resembles nothing so much as a Saturday morning cartoon show commercial. Granted, today's children are tube-tested babies rather than ready readers, but must editors, as the adults in charge, sink to the lowest channel denominator? Are our prime resource, the nation's young, to be brainwashed for a society of binary ethics: the Off or On button and no other, two choices that are really none -- either the book that comes on like a TV box or no book at all?Little Monster is a fearsome portent, (CONTINUED ON PAGE 23) (CONTINUED FROM PAGE 15) particularly since Mercer Mayer has been a felicitous illustrator-author of many award-winning books for children. Little Monster's Mother Goose is monstrous indeed; crude and schlocky, with anachronistic humor that doesn't work.
Examples can be found on just about every page. Here is one of the least offensive: to supplement the weather quatrain "Evening red and morning gray, /Send the traveller on the way;/ Evening gray and morning red,/Bring the rain upon his head," a cartoon figure exclaims, "Say, buddy, you're all wet!" (Incidentally, the figure bears a startling spin-off resemblance to one of the creatures from Where The Wild Things Are .) Another page offers the superb text "When I was a little boy/I had but little wit;/'Tis a long time ago,/And I have no more yet;/Nor ever, ever shall/Until I die;/For the longer I live/The more fool am I." A creature comments on this, "That boy is the producer's son." Anyone for canned laugh-tracks?
James Marshall's Mother Goose is a far more adequate try; it is pleasant-humored, a kindly Mister Softee pastel version. Though the softness, I think, may be what is disappointing. Take his mulberry-bush children on a cold and frosty morning: there is no nip in the air, no clarifying sparkle to the scene; not much, in fact, in the entire book is sharply venturesome. Yet his little girl with the curls is very, very good mischief, and so is his rat that "for want of stairs,/Went down a rope to say his prayers." The latter is presented by Marshall as a tiny twin brother to a gray-cowled genuflecting monk.
His three satin-vested pigs with sorrel wigs, got up as Restoration dandies, are delectable; look closely and notice that the third has a miniature heart-shaped patch on his cheek. On the whole, though, Marshall seems to have experienced a failure of nerve. There are several pages of contemporary remarks, not as disastrous as those of Mercer Mayer's Little Monster , but superfluous all the same, as Mother Hubbard's dog is made to inveigh, "I can scarcely believe it." I can scarcely believe such exegesis is necessary. Bring back Martha and George.
Susan Jeffers' If Wishes Were Horses brings together eight of the traditional rhymes that deal with horses. There is no striving for a jazzed-up modernity; the effect is altogether lovely. Despite the high price, it is a book that can be bought and treasured for one's own children, for oneself and for gift-giving times.
Last for best with Great Grandmother Goose by Helen Cooper.The author, a professor of medieval literature at Cambridge, has delved into old manuscript sources and brought forth 80 rhymes, the latest of which dates back to the 16th century. She has made the language easy to comprehend, without condescending to make it "relevant." The black-and-white drawings are a harmonious accompaniment: amusing, rich with detail, and lots of them -- the more to uncover the more you peruse, just as it should be in a book for youngsters. My only carping is the arbitary division into sections, as though an editor felt that children of today have not a long enough attention span, that geared as they are to television clocks, they must have every book broken up for them into little snack-time munchy periods. Not so. I would urge that in later editions (and I hope it will go into many printings) that the divisions be omitted. Other than that, it is my choice for Mother Goose Book of the Year, huzzah and high honors.