Forgotten Bookshelf: The Space Child's Mother Goose
by Frederick Winsor, illus. Marian Parry
Simon & Schuster, 1956
Reissued 2001 by Purple House Press
Hey, did anybody notice that today is Pi Day? You know -- March 14 -- 3.14. A perfect day to celebrate all things clever and mathematical. Of course, it also makes an excellent reason to go out and eat some pie. Here's a treat to celebrate this rather irrational day:
Probable-Possible, my black hen,
She lays eggs in the Relative When. S
he doesn't lay eggs in the Positive Now
Because she's unable to Postulate How.
In the 1950s, architecht Frederick Winsor frequently contributed light verse to the Atlantic Monthly about science, math, and philosophy. In 1956, these and a few more were compiled to make The Space Child's Mother Goose. In an inspired move, the illustrator Marian Parry was asked to contribute to the book what she calls her "own peculiar drawings." Together, they created a world of whimsy just perfect for anyone with a love of word games, questions, and puzzles. Winsor has been described as kind of a distant cousin from the White Knight in Alice in Wonderland, and it shows. Almost all of the verses in this collection are parodies of familiar nursery rhymes, like this one:
Flappity, Floppity, Flip!
The Mouse on the Mobius Strip.
The Strip revolved, The Mouse dissolved,
In a chronodimensional skip.
Or this one:
Spin along in spatial night,
Monitor, with blip and beep,
The Universe -- and Baby's sleep.
Other verse sounds familiar, although it's all pure Winsor:
There was an old man in a Time Machine
Who borrowed a Tuesday all painted in green.
His pockets with rockets he used to jam
And he said, "I have thunk, so I cannot am!"
As you can see from this example, not all of the verses make particular sense, but sparkle instead with lovely rhythms and clever twists of language. Longer poems are included too, such as the science satire "The Theory That Jack Built" ("This is the Flaw/Based on the Mummery/Hiding the Flaw/The lay in th Theory Jack Built") and "A Space Child Would Exploring Go" ("With a rowley, powley, gammon and spinach/Heigh Ho! says Anthony Rowley"). Oh, and did I mention that the "Probable-Possible" verse at the beginning of this review is presented in several different languages throughout the book? It's there in French, Greek, Chinese, and even one using Egyptian hieroglyphics. Egads.
(The Greek translation includes the line "She lays eggs in concept, being a sophist-bird.")
Feeling dazzled? Winsor includes footnotes to many of his verses, but even these exist as bits of doggerel -- to define "cortex" and "vortex," he gives us this: "[t]he cortex wraps around a core/Alas! there isn't any vore." For readers wanting some down-to-earth information, there is also an appendix called "Answers."
There are many verses about time travel in this book, and I can't help but wonder if that is part of the reason why this book has aged so well, despite the fact that it is fifty-plus years old. Yes, there are a few references to outdated technology (such as a "Hi-Fi") and one poem, "The Hydrogen Dog and the Cobalt Cat," is a vintage Cold War-era bit about nuclear paranoia. (It's also the most heavyhanded poem in the book.) But most of them, since they deal with timeless concepts, are still as fresh and fun today as they were fifty years ago.
Let's not forget the illustrations! Parry decorates each and every page of this book -- including the gorgeous indigo endpapers, and they are just as amusing as the poems they accompany. She uses delicate lines to create mawkish, birdlike people in old-fashioned dress.
Sheep float in parallel lines into another dimension, elaborate, button-lovely machines rattle and bang while mischiveous, wide-eyed children look on. A few pictures include figures created entirely out of curlicues. It's rare that you see an author and illustrator so happily matched.
The big question is, of course, who is this book for? Initially, I thought that nursery-aged children might be a bit young for these rhymes, but really, the nonsense here makes as much sense as the nonsense in any other Mother Goose anthology. Older children, especially middle-schoolers and up -- will certainly get a kick out of some of these, perhaps even more when introduced by a teacher or other adult friend.
Think twice about passing up this book -- it's true that these verses may not be for everybody, but as the culture of childhood is becoming more and more math-phobic (especially among girls), it's good to pass along something that makes thinking seem merry.