Nursey rhymes new for ``90s

January 24, 1994|By Linda Shrieves | Linda Shrieves,Orlando Sentinel

Georgy Porgy might have kissed the girls and made them cry in the old days, but these days, old Georgy is a mere shadow of his former self.

And he's not the only one. In "The New Adventures of Mother Goose" (Meadowbrook Press, $15), the three blind mice of nursery rhyme are now the three kind mice. And Little Miss Muffett used to be scared of spiders, but no more. Now she's bossing them around.

Welcome to the Mother Goose of the '90s -- complete with revisionist verses of traditional nursery rhymes.

Out are the old rhymes that implied parents beat, starved or underfed their children. In are rhymes for these politically correct times.

Or so says Bruce Lansky, a Minnesota publisher whose previous books have included "The Best Baby Name Book in the Whole Wide World," "Moms Say the Funniest Things" and "Dads Say the Dumbest Things."

"I'm on a mission to create a new body of children's literature that is both entertaining and positive without being preachy," Mr. Lansky says. "We need to replace traditional children's literature that is archaic, scary, violent, intolerant and sexist, and replace it with literature that reflects contemporary values."

Mr. Lansky, the 52-year-old father of two grown children, first noticed how sexist and violent Mother Goose rhymes were when his children were small.

He couldn't explain to his kids why the old woman who lived in the shoe beat her kids and sent them to bed; he didn't like telling his kids that Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater kept his wife in a pumpkin shell. He wasn't crazy about Tom Tom the Piper's Son, either -- who steals a pig and then gets beaten.

"About 25 percent of the poems I wanted to skip over because they contained something violent, strange or uncomfortable," Mr. Lansky says. "Another 25 percent of the Mother Goose rhymes (( use antiquated language -- things that kids don't understand."

After publishing a collection of children's poems by modern poets, Mr. Lansky decided to take a stab at revising Mother Goose.

It's not exactly a new idea. Experts in children's literature note that traditional stories and rhymes have been under attack for 200 years by social reformers trying to adapt traditional tales to suit the morals of the times.

"This has been done many times," says Alison Lurie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and literature professor at Cornell University Ithaca, N.Y. "People are always objecting to one thing or another. Sometimes it's the violence; sometimes it's the sexism."

Even as far back as the early 1800s, British educator Sarah Trimmer, the child-rearing expert of the period, warned parents not to read "Cinderella" to their children.

Over the years, others have tried -- and failed -- to rewrite favorite children's stories. One of the more recent attempts was made by Ms. magazine, which published nonsexist versions of traditional fairy tales.

The updated modern versions may be politically correct, but they're not always palatable to children.

"Children," Ms. Lurie says, "are very suspicious of rhymes that aren't very funny." And parents, she notes, are fond of the rhymes that they grew up with.

Still, Mr. Lansky seems to have found an audience. His book has LTC sold 60,000 copies since it debuted in October and is now in the third printing.

"I think there's a huge market of conscientious parents and grandparents who want something good for their kids," Mr. Lansky says. "I'm not trying to be politically correct; I'm trying to do something that's needed."

Mr. Lansky knew, however, that it would be tough coming up with funny alternatives to the old Mother Goose rhymes.

At first, he enlisted poets to rework the old rhymes. He approached many of the poets who had contributed work to an earlier book he had edited -- "Kids Pick the Funniest Poems." But when the poets struggled to come up with engaging rewrites, Mr. Lansky put pencil to paper.

"I wrote a few nursery rhymes,just for fun," he says. "And I was persistent. I wrote scores of nursery rhymes and constantly revised them based on comments from children, parents and teachers. Altogether I wrote about 60 percent of the poems in the book."

To make sure that the rhymes appealed to kids, he tested the 41 nursery rhymes on 300 children from ages 3 to 7.

In elementary schools and day-care centers, he performed readings and noted the reactions.

"Kids recognize the characters -- they know who Humpty Dumpty is and Yankee Doodle. But they love it with an unexpected ending," says Mr. Lansky. "Kids love to adulterate stuff. Remember the song 'On Top of Spaghetti'? That's an adulteration of 'On Top of Old Smoky.' "

The question remains, however: Can you successfully change a nursery rhyme, especially when it has been drilled into the public consciousness?

Mr. Lansky is hopeful. "These poems have head stickability, a memorable quality," he says.

Ms. Lurie says it is tough but possible. "It's very difficult to get the public to accept new nursery rhymes," Ms. Lurie says.

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