Posted in Poetry News

New Songs for Old – by Piu DasGupta

New Songs for Old! Re-inventing Nursery Rhymes.

Nursery rhymes – we all know and love them.  Who didn’t grow up with ditties like Hey Diddle Diddle, Mary Mary, Quite Contrary, or Humpty Dumpty?  They’re part of the furniture of the nursery of childhood.

What is less well known is that many of these rhymes – some hundreds of years old – have themes and subject matter of a decidedly adult nature.  One theory about Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, for example, is that the rhyme refers to Queen Mary I of England, the “silver bells and cockle shells” referencing the instruments of torture that she used to convert recalcitrant Protestants to Catholicism.  Other rhymes have somewhat dubious content – like the Old Woman who lived in a shoe, with her multitude of children who could only be dealt with by a sound smacking and sending off to bed.  As a child growing up in Kolkata, India, I remember being mildly frightened by rhymes such as this, as well as bemused by the very English world they created: Dr Foster getting drenched in Gloucester, the Grand Old Duke of York marching his men up and down the hill.

These rhymes are known and loved by generations of children.  They form part of our collective childhood memory.  But memory is a living thing, not a mausoleum.  It should be added to, if we’re to have dynamic and not fossilized childhoods.  Modern nursery rhymes are diverse and inclusive: Dennis Lee’s Alligator Pie, which gave Canadian children a whole body of nursery rhymes referencing their own landscape; or Jane Newberry’s gorgeously illustrated, interactive book of rhymes for young children, Big Green Crocodile, shortlisted for the 2021 CLiPPA award.

For older children, fractured and re-worked nursery rhymes provide a rich source for honing critical and analytical skills, for questioning clichés and exploring history.  In my poem What Are Little Girls Made Of?, for example, gender stereotypes are turned on their heads in a joyous mish-mash, encouraging children to think critically about them, and to explore their individual identity:

What Are Little Girls Made Of?

What are little girls made of?

What are little girls made of?

Swords and roars and dinosaurs

pirates, Death Stars, dragons’ claws

castles, pistols, ragged shirts

bows and arrows, finger-dirt

grubby knees and paint-stained faces

every lack of social graces.

That’s what little girls are made of.

What are little boys made of?

What are little boys made of?

Ribbons, bows, curly locks

Lady Gaga, sparkly socks

fluffy diaries, friendship bracelets

secret notes in hidden places

cupcakes topped with chocolate sprinkles

fairy wands that wink and twinkle.

That’s what little boys are made of.

But, you say, hang on a mo –

I am a pirate with a bow.

Or actually, I’d rather be

making cupcakes up a tree.

No, I’m a princess with a patch –

Don’t stress, it’s fine to mix and match.

By far the best is to be true

to the bestest person: YOU.

©Piu DasGupta.  First published in The Dirigible Balloon, August 2021

Activities for KS3 pupils based on this poem could include: looking through newspaper and/or magazine articles and cutting out clichéd or recurring descriptions of men and women; are some adjectives considered “male” (handsome, strong) and some “female” (pretty, sweet) – what could be used instead?  Or the children could create their own “fractured” nursery rhymes, replacing key words to turn stereotypes on their heads –

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater

Had a wife and did mistreat her

She waved a wand and winked and eye,

And turned him into pumpkin pie.

Older children and teenagers would enjoy more grown-up nursery rhyme parodies, such as that of This Little Piggy Went to Market in Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (William Morrow, 2006).  For a sample Year 7 lesson plan based on examining gender stereotypes in nursery rhymes and modern media, see the end of this article.

It’s also fascinating to unearth the hidden significance of nursery rhymes, the historical and political roots from which they have been cut loose to float free over the years.  One theory about the nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice is that, like Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, it may refer to the martyrs, the Anglican bishops Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer, burned at the stake for their Protestant beliefs (and therefore “blind”):

Three blind mice

Paid a high price

The Queen’s beliefs they all three spurned

So at the stake she had them burned,

Those three blind mice.

For many years, the nursery rhyme Ring a Ring of Roses was believed to have its roots in the Great Plague, the “ring” of roses referring to the rosy rash that was one of the symptoms of the Black Death, the “pocketful of posies” the nosegay that was carried to defend against infection, “Atishoo, Atisshoo, we all fall down” referring to a final death.  Although this explanation is now generally disputed by scholars, it does give the rhyme a dark relevance in the context of these pandemic days.

“A nursery rhyme shapes your bones and nerves, and it shapes your mind. They are powerful, nursery rhymes, and immensely old, and not toys, even though they are for children.”  So says a character in Katherine Catmull’s exploration of myth, fable and nursery rhyme, Summer and Bird (Puffin, 2012).  We who read, write and teach nursery rhymes must tread carefully in the magical forest, mindful of their power.  

Piu DasGupta

Piu DasGupta is a British/French/Indian writer based in Paris, France. Although poetry has been a lifelong passion, she turned to writing it quite recently. Her children’s poems have been published to date in magazines such as The Caterpillar, Northern Gravy, and The Dirigible Balloon.  She is on Twitter as @PiuDasGupta1.    


Award-Wining Children's Poet, Author, Wildlife and Climate enthusiast, NPD Ambassador, blogger and owner of Lola the retired alert dog and Paddy the alert dog in training. Books include CLiPPA shortlisted Being Me, Poems about Thoughts, Worries and Feelings, Editor of Shaping the World, Author of Be the Change, Apes to Zebras, The Same Inside, Reaching the Stars and Animal Magic. I visit schools, libraries, literary festivals via Zoom and give lessons on writing poetry for children. @Lizpoet

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