Saturday, May 15, 2010

Board Books and Prophesying Nursery Rhymes

As the arrival of my new niece or nephew approaches, it seems the family guessing game has shifted slightly from what sex the baby will be to on what day will it arrive? We’ve also begun thinking about what we can do to make the child’s life as bright and rich in opportunities as possible. For many in our family, of course, a large part of that has been about gathering books the child might come to love and learn from.

This week’s posting is a look back at a mid-twentieth century children’s “board books”, a special type of children’s book explicitly designed for toddlers and infants. Board books are manufactured in a very particular binding format, using chunky leafs of pressed paperboard for the covers and pages (at least 2-ply thickness, often more). Usually they are brilliantly colorful, easily read (minimal amount of text), and hinged with an extremely sturdy spine or with the pressed paperboard leafs folded and glued. The first board books appeared in the late 1900s and grew in popularity throughout the century. Today they are a staple feature of any bookstore’s children’s section.

The book in question is The Year Around Book, published by McGraw-Hill’s Education Games & Aids Division in 1965 and intended for children ages 2 to 4. The text was written by Helen Jill Fletcher, author of numerous children’s books from 1948 through the early 1990s, and the illustrations are by 2010’s Caldecott winner Jerry Pinkney, legendary children’s book artist and recipient of numerous awards. The Year Around Book was Pinkney’s third children’s book -- very early in his career -- and looking at how much his work has changed over the decades is a clear demonstration of how much the artistic style of children’s book illustrations have evolved since the mid-1960s.

Apparently The Year Around Book was only issued in one edition (rather peculiar for a children’s book), making my copy of the 1965 printing a first. It is not, however, a true first: on the final page, inside the back cover, a printer’s code runs “4 5 6 7 8 9”, indicating that this copy belongs to the fourth printing of the edition.

The pages are made of white 2-ply pressed paperboard and measure 18.25cm x 31.5cm. The binding is a white plastic comb of twelve teeth. There is some modest bumping and splitting of the paperboard -- especially beneath the comb binding -- but nothing very extreme; there are no owner’s marks. For a 45 year-old children’s book it is in rather fine condition.

The book is organized around the months of the year. Each page presents a brightly colored scene in a slightly cartoonish style depicting each successive month. A brief prose passage highlighting the main points of each month accompanies the illustrations. Tying the book together is the motif of a large, circular object above the scene; in each illustration, the object is different (for example, a giant sunflower in April, fireworks in July, a witch flying past the moon in October, etc.).

These circular motifs fill a space on the oblong boards that is used, on the cover, for a representation of the sun; the smiling face of the sun includes five holes cut into the board, allowing the smiling face of a balloon in the first scene (children celebrating New Years in January) to show through. On some pages, the black ink of the text is regrettably hard to read against the dark illustration beneath it -- a simple design flaw that suggests the text and artwork were developed separately by the writer and artist -- or at the very least that the designer did not confer adequately with either after the proof was prepared.

There is a particularly strong emphasis on patriotic events and holidays in the various months (even Election Day makes an appearance in November). The book manages to steer clear of explicit religious content (Easter in April and Christmas in December are presented in their primarily secular forms -- the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus presiding) until you turn to the back cover.

The text on the back is given to “Days of the Week” and presents a variation on the traditional fortune-telling nursery rhyme “Monday’s Child”, meant to suggest what a child’s personality will be like based on the day on which they are born (see last image below). This tradition of reductive predictions relating one’s day of birth to one’s character can be traced back at least to the writer Thomas Nashe in the 1570s, but this particular rhyme’s first appearance in approximately its modern form was recorded by A. E. Bray in his 1838 Traditions of Devonshire.

Throughout the 1800s it went through various permutations, with the version appearing in the September 17, 1887 Harper’s Weekly becoming perhaps the most prevalent. This is the version given in I. and P. Opie’s Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (second edition, 1997) and it speaks particularly well (I think) to the social mores and cultural priorities of nineteenth-century England in the raising of children (that is, it emphasizes those qualities the English considered both ideal and undesirable in its youth):

Monday's child is fair of face,

Tuesday's child is full of grace,

Wednesday's child is full of woe,

Thursday's child has far to go,

Friday's child is loving and giving,

Saturday's child works hard for a living,

But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day

Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.

Obviously the fortune for Wednesday’s child (the source, according to pop culture legend, for the name of Wednesday Addams) and the negative connotations for Thursday’s child were inappropriate for a children’s book in the 1960s, so the poem was changed for The Year Around Book. What was not changed, however, was the reference to the religious alter ego of Sunday:

Monday’s child is kind and sweet

Tuesday’s child is clean and neat

Wednesday’s child is tall and fair

Thursday’s child will take a dare

Friday’s child is wise and frank

Saturday’s child will play a prank

But the child that’s born on the Sabbath day,

Is good and loving, blithe and gay.

So, to return to the initial premise of this post, on what day of the week will my niece or nephew arrive? And will The Year Around Book be correct? We can only wait and see...

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