March 09, 2006

Heavy words, lightly thrown; on second thought, throw a little harder

A friend in England sent me this article the other day, about a couple of Oxfordshire nursery schools that have decided to rewrite various fairy tales and Mother Goose rhymes:
Instead of singing “Baa baa, black sheep” as generations of children have learnt to do, toddlers in Oxfordshire are being taught to sing “Baa baa, rainbow sheep”. ...

In keeping with the new approach, teachers at the nurseries have reportedly also changed the ending of Humpty Dumpty so as not to upset the children and dropped the seven dwarfs from the title of Snow White.
I wasn't surprised by the, erm, cracked decision (though I am wondering how Humpty Dumpty has been rewritten -- "Humpty Dumpty had a wee little accident"?), but I was surprised by the coincidence of the article's arrival, because I've spent part of the past week trying to locate Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme by Chris Roberts in our interlibrary loan system, with no luck, and have just come to the decision to buy the book, which would be a nice go-along for our history studies, especially as the kids get older (I doubt we'll be discussing any time soon the fairgrounds peep show history of "Rub a Dub Dub, Three Men in a Tub").

As The Times points out,
This is not the first time, however, that the nursery rhyme — written in 1744 satirising the taxes imposed on wool exports — has fallen foul of political correctness. In 2000 Birmingham City Council tried to ban the rhyme, after claiming that it was racist and portrayed negative stereotypes. The council rescinded the ban after black parents said it was ludicrous.
Which is why Heavy Words is such a nifty book to have on the shelf, right next to Iona and Peter Opies' Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, which gives the histories of the old rhymes. The kids and I did a bit of this last year, while working our way through the Middle Ages and SOTW2.

My interest in the stories behind the nursery rhymes goes way back, to when I found my parents' copy of Mr. and Mrs. Opie's classic, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. To read it as a child in the early seventies was a revelation, to go back and read it as an adult is an exhilarating trip even further back in time.

By the way, if shelf space and dollars are short over at your place too, this UK nursery rhymes website has oodles of information, including lyrics, origins, and history. And the scholarship does seem to be adequate -- the test is usually "Ring Around the Rosy", to which the website addresses a paragraph, "View of the Sceptics."

*Credit for the nifty Humpty pic goes to the incredibly talented Bob Staake, from his book-in-progress, Modern Mother Goose (© 2006 by Bob Staake).

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