In his 2004 book, Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, Chris Roberts notes how nursery rhymes are full of cruelty, lots of death and a whole heapin’ ton of sex. Over the years, they’ve parted ways with such themes and have become appreciated and treasured as merely singsong verses that are used to entertain children. Never mind that “Jack and Jill,” in one cheeky explanation, is about losing one’s virginity. It’s got a good rhythm, and we can clap to it. That’s about all that matters today.

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For that reason and many others, Mother Goose and nursery rhymes are everywhere in early childhood. It’s hard to breathe life into such collections these days. These centuries-old verses are adapted for picture books on a regular basis, and after a certain amount of ennui sets in, you start to think that, if you’ve seen one “Hey Diddle Diddle,” you’ve seen ’em all.

But there’s a brand-new collection of nursery rhymes out that is quite unlike any I’ve seen before. Nursery Rhyme Comics from First Second Books is a collection of 50 rhymes (from Mother Goose to even playground/jump-rope chants) as re-imagined by cartoonists. “The comics we discover in these pages,” writes historian Leonard S. Marcus in the book’s introduction, “are new-made fantasies spun from the whole cloth of fantasies we thought we knew…Each of the fifty artists showcased here has done a similarly persuasive, and unpredictable, job of back-story elaboration.”

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donkey Take, for instance, one of my favorites in the bunch, “The Donkey.” (“Donkey, donkey, old and gray, / Ope your mouth and gently bray; / Lift your ears and blow your horn, / To wake the world this sleepy morn.”). As re-imagined by author/illustrator Patrick McDonnell, it is a concise and funny two-panel cartoon featuring an old donkey next to a bird in a tree in the top panel, followed in the second by the donkey coming to life with one very exuberant saxophone honk, a saxophone which he appears to have pulled out of nowhere, which makes the tiny bird jump.

And the old woman who lived in the shoe? Well, in the world of Lucy Knisley, she’s actually a rocker-turned-babysitter. No paddling in her world either, her version of whipping them soundly being her rock band, The Whips. The kids join her in rocking out, they get tuckered out, and she puts them to bed.

Author/illustrator Tao Nyeu’s contribution, “Rock-a-Bye Baby,” is so funny that I won’t even describe it so that its wicked humor can unfold for you when you see it yourself.

You get the idea. This clearly isn’t for babies and toddlers, as nursery rhymes typically are. This is for the older children who were raised on them, who will get great satisfaction from the new worlds and subtexts created here. This is also for comic book aficionados, as well as anyone who enjoys contemporary illustration. Contributing to this collection are comic book artists and graphic novelists (Jaime Hernandez, Mike Mignola, Gene Yang), children’s book illustrators (David Macaulay, Jules Feiffer), editorial illustrators (Roz Chast, Richard Thompson), and even those who do all of the above (Marc Rosenthal). “Lucky for us,” Marcus adds, “to be living in a time of such free-flowing cross-pollination in the graphic and narrative arts.”

Amen.

Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. 

Illustrations for "The Donkey" copyright © 2011 by Patrick McDonnell.