With a Song in Your Heart: Children’s Songs, Illustrated

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The old tom cat interrupts the wedding festivities in Frog Went A-Courtin by John Langstaff. Photo: Jil Casey, Flickr.

A book is a gift you can open again and again—an axiom that is especially true for children. The only thing I love more than reading aloud to my grandchildren is singing with them! So imagine how much fun it is to combine the two, by means of a special category of children’s book: classic children’s songs, illustrated. When my own children were little, I was even known to act out the songs with puppets at the library. “Singing to children … is among the most meaningful activities we share with them,” according to scientists (New York Times 10/15/18). If you’d like to introduce music into your family time, consider giving one of these delightful, multi-purpose volumes this holiday. Don’t worry if you aren’t familiar with the song—most have the music score printed in the back of the book. 

My favorite illustrated children’s song is The Little White Duck. This charming ditty explores the at first serene, but ultimately fraught, relationship between a duck, a frog, a bug, and a snake as they do “what they oughter” in the water of a pond. The lyrics, written in 1950 by Walt Whippo, have been illustrated by Joan Paley (2000), whose simple, brightly colored illustrations highlight the raucous quacks, glugs, and hisses of the characters. 

Also high on my list is The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night (1961), illustrated by the legendary Dutch-American artist Peter Spier. This whimsical English folk ballad captures the natural, if somewhat grisly, realities of farm life, with a jaunty refrain at the end of each verse (e.g. “until he reached the town-o, town-o, town-o”). As in Blueberries for Sal (a classic children’s book by Robert McCloskey), both the fox’s and the farmer’s families are portrayed sympathetically, but with competing desires to consume the hapless geese. And the gorgeous, painted illustrations make the New England moonlit countryside a character in itself! Other brilliant books by Spier include People, Rain, and Noah’s Ark—which won the 1977 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, an award that recognizes the year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children.” He also illustrated the song London Bridge is Falling Down.

My grandchildren’s favorite is I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, retold and illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott (1980)—perhaps because I tickle them every time I repeat the second verse about the spider “that wiggled and jiggled and tickled inside her”! This song features cumulative verses—à la the “Twelve Days of Christmas” or “The House That Jack Built”—as an Old Lady swallows a whole series of farm animals in her futile effort to catch the inadvertently swallowed fly. Westcott has also illustrated Skip to My Lou (1991). A more recent, colorful version of I Know an Old Lady is illustrated by Pam Adams (2003). 

If you haven’t heard the magical Teddy Bears’ Picnic by Jimmy Kennedy, I recommend you listen to it on YouTube this very minute—with or without your children! This classic song, written in 1907 and recorded by Henry Hall in 1932—as well as by Bing Crosby and ___ (among others)— is imaginatively illustrated by Alexandra Day (1991). The dream-like song warns us that if we go down to the woods today, we’d “better go in disguise” because “today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic.” Using the conceit shared by so many classic children’s stories—such as Raggedy Ann, Winnie the Pooh, and Toy Story—that toys come to life at night or on other special occasions, this song also rests on the tongue-in-cheek assumption that magically animated teddy bears might be dangerous (so it’s “safer to stay at home”). Because of course, in a child’s vivid imagination, their toys are alive. “See them gaily gad about” until “at six o’clock their mommies and daddies will take them home to bed, because they’re tired little teddy bears.” Both the lyrics and illustrations seem to go inside a child’s mind and view the world from their point of view.

I can still hear my mother’s beautiful voice crooning the mystical lullaby Baby’s Boat’s the Silver Moon, and see the pictures it created in my head as I fell asleep as a child —pictures of a baby sailing “upon the sea of sleep” in her crescent moon boat, as she fishes for a dream with a moonbeam line dangling a star for bait. While I was delighted to find this poetic lullaby in book form illustrated by Jeanne Titherington in 1992, the delicate illustrations will never match those in my imagination.  

Written down in Scotland over 400 years ago and brought to Appalachia by Scotch-Irish immigrants, Frog Went a-Courtin’ was “retold” in 1955 by folklorist John Langstaff, with Caldecott-winning illustrations by Feodor Rojankovsky. In this mock heroic ballad, Frog rides over to Miss Mousie’s hall with “his sword and pistol by his side” to propose marriage. Each line is followed by the rhythmic confirmation “mm-hm, mm-hm.” A delightful procession of animals attends the ensuing wedding breakfast consisting of “three green beans and a black-eyed pea”—including a moth, a flea, a raccoon, a goose, and ultimately a tom cat who churlishly interrupts the celebration. The setting and events are reminiscent of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Langstaff (1920-2005), a pioneer in this genre, teamed up again with Rojankovsky to bless us with the counting song Over in the Meadow (1957), which also features an “old mother froggie and her seven polliwogs,” among many other animal families including turtles, foxes, owls, and rabbits. Although the song text actually has the mother beaver admonishing her six children to “build,” my sister’s children creatively changed this instruction to “beav” and still sing it as “’Beav,’ said the mother. “We beav!’ said the six; so they beaved and were glad in their dam built of sticks.” It makes a childish kind of sense, doesn’t it?

There are too many more examples to discuss them all here, including You Are My Sunshine —the classic 1939 song credited to Jimmie Davis and sung by Johnny Cash among many others—illustrated by Caroline Jayne Church; Going to the Zoo (1996) with lyrics by Tom Paxton, illustrated by Karen Lee Schmidt; and the ebullient Mama Don’t Allow (No Guitar Playin’ ‘Round Here), illustrated in 1984 by Thacher Hurd. The perennial favorite The Wheels on the Bus by Raffi has been illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (1990), Sylvie Wickstrom (1998), and others. One of the newest additions to this delightful collection is The Wonky Donkey (2010) by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley, which reached the top of the bestseller lists this year after the video of a Scottish grandmother reading it aloud to her infant grandson went viral. For all of these titles, visit Over the Moon Bookstore in Piedmont Place. Wishing you a joyful and musical holiday! 

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