March 6, 2013

World Read-Aloud Day - Nursery Rhymes

        Today is World Read-Aloud Day, a celebration, as LitWorld says, of "the joy and power of shared words, and literacy as a human right that belongs to all people."  Good and Important Stuff!  Today I'm thinking about one of the very first things many children hear read aloud: nursery rhymes.
        I really get a kick out of nursery rhymes.  Some are less appealing than others, of course, but many of them are wonderful little nuggets of fantasy, humor, and social commentary.  Yes, I know about the real political and historical origins of many of the classic nursery rhymes, and that's pretty interesting in its own right, but as I say on the back of my own selection of nursery rhymes, I'm not about to let those facts get in the way of such delightful stories.  My favorite nursery rhymes are the ones that tell just enough of a story to make me wonder why, or how, or what
might happen next.  Of course most of my favorites are the ones I collected when I started doing my own nursery rhyme illustrations (and by the way, I didn't start illustrating nursery rhymes when my children were born.  I had done a number of them before, just for my own sake.)
        But for reading aloud, the value of nursery rhymes goes even deeper.  The right combination of catchy rhythm and rhyme plus quirky scenario can stick in a child's mind like nothing else, making nursery rhymes terrific building blocks for literacy.  And they really need to be spoken aloud, making them best when shared between people and between generations in exactly the sort of interaction that fosters love of language.  Finally, those fantastical situations - cows jumping over the moon, wise men trying to use a bowl as a boat, families living in shoes - invite children to think "counterfactually," which is fundamental to how children learn.  (My blog post about that is here.)
        There are about a zillion nursery rhyme books out there, from huge compendiums with scholarly notes, to little board books with a single rhyme.  There are efforts by famous illustrators like Helen Oxenbury, tie-ins with popular characters like Blue's Clues, and then no-names like me.  Illustrations range from crude cartoons to beautiful paintings (and check out A Stitch in Rhyme by Belinda Downes with very cool illustrations done with applique and embroidery).  As a child I always favored the ones where the girls had beautiful old-fashioned dresses and the backgrounds had lots of scenic details.  I'm afraid there aren't a lot of pretty dresses in my book, Hey, Diddle Diddle! and Other Rhymes, but I did try to include extra details for those who like to spend time looking at the pictures.
        Every household should own a nursery rhyme book, but it's also worth going to the library and browsing through all the options to find something you'll enjoy looking at over and over and over… and over.  (Nursery rhymes are usually shelved at 398.8, but some libraries put them with picture books under illustrator's last name, or even in a separate section of their own.  They can sometimes be hard to find and often get overlooked by the average person browsing for picture books.)
        But whether it's nursery rhymes, an article from the newspaper, a couple of paragraphs from a novel, or the back of the cereal box, share the joy of the written word and read aloud with someone today!

[Pictures: The Family who Lived in a Shoe, rubber block print by AEGN, 2003;
Hey, Diddle Diddle, rubber block print by AEGN, 2001;
Wise Men of Gotham, rubber block print by AEGN, 1998;
all illustrations from Hey, Diddle Diddle! and Other Rhymes by AEGN.]

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