October 20, 2005


Schoolyard Rhymes. Selected by Judy Sierra. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Knopf. $15.95.

Ready, Set, Preschool! By Anna Jane Hays. Illustrated by True Kelly. Knopf. $16.95.

     School may not always be fun, but recess should be with “Kids’ Own Rhymes for Rope Skipping, Hand Clapping, Ball Bouncing, and Just Plain Fun” (as the subtitle puts it) from Schoolyard Rhymes.  The book is nothing more (and nothing less) than a set of nonsense rhymes likely to be heard at elementary schools just about everywhere.  Lots of them poke fun at authority: “Silence in the court/While the judge blows his nose,/Stands on his head,/And tickles his toes.”  Lots are just slightly naughty: “Tarzan, Tarzan, through the air,/Tarzan lost his underwear./Tarzan said, “Me don’t care./Jane buy me another pair.”  Some are wonderfully convoluted: “1-1 was a racehorse./2-2 was one, too./1-1 won a race one day,/And 2-2 1-1-2.”  Some are classics that parents are likely to remember from their own schoolyard days: “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me./Guess I’ll eat some worms./Big fat juicy ones, long slim slimy ones,/Itsy bitsy fuzzy wuzzy worms.”  (Adults who do not recall this precise version will probably remember a similar one.)  And a few may be losing their meaning in our age of cellular communication: “Liar, liar, pants on fire,/Nose as long as a telephone wire.”  The book is fun in the silliest possible way, and Melissa Sweet’s highly amusing illustrations – which often include the rhymes in tiny type as part of the picture – make it even more enjoyable.  The only real question about this book is: for whom is it intended?  Kids won’t want to learn rhymes from it – they’ll get them from friends.  Parents won’t want it for nostalgia (well, maybe for really strange nostalgia).  And since a little of this sort of rhyming goes a long way, this doesn’t seem like the sort of book a parent would want to read to a young child.  Still, if this sort of material does appeal to you (it’s okay to be a tad offbeat), this is a fine collection of it.

     If you think all this silliness is beside the point and it’s important to take school seriously – starting with school for the youngest children – then you’ll want Ready, Set, Preschool!  This is a well-meaning, sober-sided approach to early education: Anna Jane Hays is former director of the book publishing program of Sesame Street.  Hays’ background shows in the topics, though True Kelly’s appealing illustrations do not use the famous TV show’s characters.  For instance, “Shapes Round-Up” introduces kids to the triangle, square, circle and rectangle; there are stories to read about a child who is eager to go to preschool and another who is worried about making friends; a section called “The New Shoes” consists entirely of pictures and encourages young children to make up a story; and the book ends with “Notes to Parents” intended to enrich the educational experience of each element or story.  There is nothing wrong with any of this, and a great deal that is right – but the book lacks playfulness, making it more of a chore to go through than it should be, and potentially making parents who are concerned about sending a child to preschool even more worried about everything that will be “expected” there.  A little lightening up, for parent and child both, is recommended.

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