Author of more than 25 children’s books, with Spinster Goose, Lisa Wheeler satirically takes the eye-for-an-eye morality hinted at in classic Mother Goose rhymes and turns it up a notch, sending wayward children to Spinster Goose’s reform school for a little behavioral management.
With “hundreds of rules / all beginning with NO,” Wheeler’s Spinster Goose tailors punishments for all types of bratty children her kindlier sister, Mother Goose, couldn’t abide. Sophie Blackall’s eerily exacting muted watercolor-and-ink illustrations brilliantly underscore the unseemliness of Wheeler’s repulsive cast of thieving, gum-chewing, class-cutting disobedients. We spoke with Wheeler to get to the root of these delightfully warped cautionary poems.
Find more grest poetry & verse among our 2011 Best Books for Children.
What inspired this collection, and what do you have against Mother Goose?
I have been collecting Mother Goose books for a number of years. I grew up reading and loving these timeless poems. We had a big ol’ book at our house called Young Years: Best Loved Stories and Poems for Little Children. It included many of the Mother Goose poems featured in Spinster Goose. I can still see my young self, tummy on the carpet, head propped on elbows, feet swinging back and forth in the air, as the book lay open on the floor. I read the cover right off it. I thank Mother Goose for my rhyme and meter talents, as well as my ability to memorize anything in rhyme.
So, in order to honor her with my somewhat twisted sense of humor, I took those beloved poems and wrote a devilish parody. Originally, I’d thought to do a book on manners and included some very disgusting poems in an early draft. My wise editor at Simon & Schuster asked whether I saw myself as the author of smart humor or gross humor. I opted for smart humor…Then it was suggested that I find a way to frame a support system for my random poems about children with bad habits.
Once I realized that Mother Goose could not deal with such awful children, her sister was born. I wanted her to be the opposite of Mother. I think the word spinster is wickedly delicious; it has a pinched quality to it and makes me think of an uptight, matronly woman who can rap a knuckle or twist an ear like nobody’s business. Bad manners turned into naughty behaviors, and Spinster Goose’s School for Ill-Mannered Children was born. (This was the working title of a later, but not final, draft.) The creation of a school also allowed me to introduce staff members; some of those became my favorite poems in the book.
Do you think ill-behaved readers will recognize themselves in these poems and reform?
Oh, I highly doubt children, or adults, will see themselves. We never do. But I’m sure they’ll recognize others and their naughty behaviors. I’ve noticed that kids feel a sense of empowerment when confronted with a bad behavior performed by a make-believe character. They feel good about themselves as they remind me that “I never do that!” or “I know a kid who always lies. He’s gonna get in trouble!” I love presenting the poems to kids in third through sixth grade, as they are quite familiar with the originals and get my more subtle jokes and puns.
How many of these nefarious types—the hair-twirler, thumb-sucker, chalk-eater, fibber, bully, tattletale, cheater, know-it-all interrupter—have you encountered? Which do you dislike the most? Conversely, which was the most fun to portray?
I have encountered all of these behaviors, many within my own family, in my lifetime. I feel that tattletales and know-it-alls possess the most disagreeable attributes. I am partial to the fibbers. In my line of work, storytelling is not only acceptable but preferable.
What do you think of Sophie’s illustrations?
I love them! As I was writing these, I envisioned the characters to look like people Edward Gorey or Charles Addams would’ve created. Sophie’s art is just creepy enough—yet endearingly so—to carry the book without veering into an underworld situation.
The closing stanza in “Goodbye”—“You’d better watch your manners. / Watch out for Spinster, too. / She’ll box and wrap each little brat / and send them home to you!”—sounds as if it’s directed to parents. What message are you trying to send to adult readers?
The warning is not just for adults, but for kids as well. If you were a kid, how would you like these urchins living in your house, eating your chalk, losing your stuff, never bathing, lying, cheating, stealing? Most kids would pass on these houseguests. Such naughty creatures would surely point the finger-of-blame or incriminate the well-behaved child, the child who’d never, never, ever act in such a manner. Right?
Did any of the schools you attended resemble Spinster Goose’s?
I grew up in a time when the public schools still administered corporal punishment. Kids spread rumors—much like my poem “Crooked Row”—about all the terrifying devices our principal kept in his office. We imagined electric paddles, a spanking machine and thick leather straps. Fortunately, I never found out. I saved my naughty behaviors for after school.