Last winter, Eloise and I were searching the back hall for a missing mitten. Inspired, I started to recite “Three Little Kittens” but somehow ended up with Bo Peep’s Sheep.
“Three little kittens have lost their mittens and don’t know where to find them. Leave them alone and they’ll come home wagging their tales behind them.”
It wasn’t the only time in the past two and half years I’ve found myself flummoxed when it came to recalling the simplest of Mother Goose and basic nursery tales …
Now what exactly were Goldilocks’ complaints about Mama and Papa Bear’s beds? And what the heck did Jack and Jill do after they reached the bottom of that hill?
This ineptitude was an obvious blight on my mothering resume. I realized I needed a crash course in Mother Goose, Hans Christian Andersen and The Brothers Grimm. And tout de suite!
Mary Engelbreit answered my call for help with a trio of children’s treasuries, each bursting with illustrations in the same elaborate style that’s made her work immediately recognizable world-round. And while she has built what the Wall Street Journal dubbed “a vast empire of cuteness” around what started out as greeting cards, it’s apparent that Engelbreit has a unique talent for presenting the most timeless of tales in exactly the fashion we always imagined them.
In “Mother Goose: One Hundred Best-Loved Verses,” Engelbreit gathered together our favorite rhymes and paired each with an endearing illustration that looks as though it’s belonged to the accompanying verse from its very birth. This harmony of word and image is likely due to Engelbreit’s love of vintage storybooks – she learned to draw at the age of 8 by copying the illustrations from her mother’s childhood books from the 1920s and ‘30s.
Passed down across generations, primarily by word of mouth, it’s no surprise that countless variations of each rhyme exists. Depending on where you grew up or who taught you the rhyme, you may say little boys are made of any combination of slugs, frogs, snips, snails and puppy-dogs’ tails. But the variations Engelbreit has selected for her treasury are all surprisingly familiar, possibly because she, too, is a Midwestern girl – born, raised and still residing in St. Louis, Missouri.
With 100 in all, Engelbreit has represented both the most familiar verses and those that are lesser known, including some I had never heard before. As a child, I loved finding the face in the moon but never knew the rhyme that paid it tribute:
The Man in the Moon
Looked out of the moon,
Looked out of the moon and said,
“’Tis time for all children on the earth
To think about getting to bed!”
This is sure to be one I’ll enjoy sharing with my children as they drag their feet at bedtime. And I laughed out loud while reading “There was a Little Girl.”
There was a little girl,
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle
Of her forehead;
When she was good
She was very, very good,
But when she was bad
She was horrid.
This is my Charlotte to a T: unruly curls always hanging in her eyes, sweet as sugar when she wants to be but a whirling temper-tantrum tornado when she’s not getting her way.
Engelbreit’s golden touch was also bestowed up a dozen age-old stories in “Nursery Tales: A Treasury of Children’s Classics.” Imaginative and vibrant illustrations captivate the young reader, and the abridged versions of these fables move quickly enough to hold the child’s attention.
As was the intention in the origin of these fables, Engelbreit relishes in the moral of each tale. The smartest of the three little pigs is praised for her diligence in using brick to build her home, the emperor is chastised for his foolish pride, and the Little Red Hen is seen thoroughly enjoying the fruits of her labor.
While Engelbreit has preserved the crucial plot points of each story, she has taken liberties as editor to soften some of the more disturbing aspect of these sometimes-ruthless tales.
In particular, I was grateful for her revisions to the Grimm Brothers’ “Hansel and Gretel.” Did anyone else find it extremely upsetting as a child to imagine a mother and father willingly leading their children into the woods to starve to death? In Engelbreit’s version of the story, the children lose themselves in the woods while collecting strawberries for dinner, their trail of bread crumbs leading home eaten up by birds.
Engelbreit also has shown mercy in her treatment of the nursery tale villains, pardoning the death sentence of the wolf in both “The Three Little Pigs” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” In the first case: “Down tumbled the wolf, right into the cooking pot. He hopped out and scurried away, and that was the end of the Big Bad Wolf.” Who liked the idea of pigs eating wolf stew anyway?
In Little Red Riding Hood, the wolf runs away “embarrassed” after letting Red and Granny step out of his mouth unharmed. All the better to go to sleep afterwards, right?
It seems, however, that Engelbreit has delineated between real animals and imaginary creatures. Puss in Boots is allowed to eat the ogre-turned-mouse, the giant falls to his death from the beanstalk and Gretel still pushes the wicked witch into the oven to save her brother. These moments do go without illustration, though, sparing young children any images that might cause nightmares.
Released just last month, “Fairy Tales: Twelve Timeless Treasures” is possibly the most illuminating for the adult reader. Here, Engelbreit introduces us to the pre-Disney versions of our best-known fairytales while adding a few twists of her own.
In “Cinderella,” our heroine dons silver slippers not glass, an interpretation likely taken from the 1879 lyrical drama written by American poet Charles Hubner. And as shocking as that difference is, “The Little Mermaid” probably seems most foreign of all. In Hans Christian Andersen’s original tale, recounted in shorten form here, the mermaid is unable to win her prince without her voice. The sea witch presents her with an ultimatum: kill the prince or lose her life. The mermaid spares her true love but is rewarded with eternal life among the angels in the sky.
In some cases, Engelbreit has made her own subtle changes to the “happily ever afters” of these books. After bestowing a kiss on her amphibian friend, the Frog Princess and the transformed prince become playmates rather than husband and wife. Similarly, Sleeping Beauty celebrates her 16th birthday – not nuptials – with her prince by her side.
Engelbreit explains: “I wanted to share these timeless stories with children today, but as I read and considered which to include, I realized for the first time how many of the stories ended with the message that marrying a prince is the solution to all of life’s problems. If only that were true! … So I decided to edit some of these endings a bit, letting children know it is okay for the princess and her frog to remain friends or that a prince can help with the household chores.”
Engelbreit has succeeded in preserving these invaluable rhymes and tales while giving them the proper editing and fresh look needed to carry them forth for generations to come. They’re certainly popular around our house, already showing wear – a smudge of snack here, a bent corner there. Should they survive my girls, they’ll certainly delight grandchildren someday, as well.