Friday, March 13, 2009

Poetry Friday: "Three Little Kittens"

Three Little Kittens and Other Favorite Nursery Rhymes selected and illustrated by Tony Ross. Henry Holt, 2009 (978-8050-8885-4) $16.95

Despite a brief framing device of a grandfather reading to his granddaughter, at first glance this collection of nursery rhymes seems familiar. The rhymes are well known, and the watercolor illustrations are very much in the traditional, old-fashioned mode, with animals wearing bow ties and women in mob-caps. What sets it apart from similar books is the expressiveness of the characters, and an edginess that's not often found in books for very young children published in the United States. (This was originally published in Great Britain in 2007.)

I enjoyed the emotion that comes through in the pictures. The "rock-a-bye" baby falls into the arms of a terrified Puritan woman, while behind her a Puritan man looks on and anxiously bites his nails. Mary and her little lamb play together with warm affection. Old Mother Hubbard is visibly perturbed by the state of her cupboard, and her dog even more so--though the cat and mouse that ran off with all the bones are mighty pleased with themselves.

Some of the touches are witty, such as the dismay of the little girl who picked up sticks and laid them straight, only to have them squashed by a good fat hen. And some are unexpectedly macabre: as children play ring around the rosy, in a scene obviously inspired by the urban legend about the origins of that rhyme, the "fallen down" children look quite dead. Little Tommy Tucker is literally blue as he sings for his supper in the snow. And a boy ponders the "want of a nail" after seeing soldiers felled by arrows on a battlefield.

With large lettering, ample illustrations and lots of white space, this book is nicely designed for toddlers. Whether they should be exposed to some of the grittier elements associated with the old rhymes is really a personal choice. (1-4)

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