“Wash the dishes, / Wipe the dishes, / Ring the bell for tea; / Three good wishes, / Three good kisses, / I will give to thee.”
Ritualistically, every time we read that page of Iona Opie and Rosemary Wells’ My Very First Mother Goose, my toddler daughter would solemnly kiss the page three times. My Very First Mother Goose (or “Yellow Goose,” as we called it, to distinguish it from its red-jacketed companion, Here Comes Mother Goose) was required reading at bedtime for years, even after my daughter outgrew her impulse to kiss the page.
That we never grew tired of the same rhymes over and over (and over and over, and over and over) is testament to both Wells’ impish bunnies, guinea pigs, puppies, and kittens and Opie’s curation of the rhymes. They tumble along, paced at a rate that’s enormously forgiving of an exhausted adult at the end of the day. Nursery rhymes, by and large, don’t make much objective sense in the first place, and after the 50th or 60th reading, they become more a succession of incanted syllables than words, moving along as if self-propelled.
And what syllables they are: “Sing, sing, / What shall I sing? / The cat’s run away / With the pudding string! / Do, do, / What shall I do? / The cat’s run away / With the pudding too!”
Nonsense they may be, but they have scaffolded countless children into spoken language and literacy. As Opie reminds us in her introduction to My Very First Mother Goose, “We seem to be born…with a love for music and the music of words….But introductions must be made. The words one first meets in nursery rhymes will always have a special magic, all the stronger for being mysterious and incomprehensible….”
So they do, and the English-speaking world must thank Opie for that introduction. She died at the age of 94 on October 23, 2017, but her work will live on, to be celebrated at bedtimes for generations to come.
Vicky Smith is children’s & teen editor.