How to make your children intelligent

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Daisy, jumping irrelevantly

The Times recently ran a front-page story on the demise of the nursery rhyme: schools are teaching these rhymes less and less apparently, as they are ‘no longer relevant.’

This did make me laugh. At which stage in our history, exactly, was a cow jumping over a moon relevant? Or four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? The wonderful thing about children is that they don’t give half a pound of tuppenny rice for relevance;

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Blackbirds: no longer baked in pies

what they can recognise – which, sadly, some education experts apparently can’t – is the magic of strange words and bizarre ideas woven together to stretch both their vocabulary and their imaginations. It doesn’t matter that the rhymes make no sense, or refer to a piece of long-forgotten history. My 22 month old grand-daughter has no idea that Rock a Bye Baby may refer to the ousting of James II by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; what she loves is the excitement of ‘when the bough breaks’ in the middle of a lullaby. Or that Ring a Ring a Roses is thought to refer to symptoms of the plague; what matters is that the words rhyme in a satisfying way, you pretend to sneeze and then fall down.

 

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Neglectful parenting

Other rhymes are even more absurd, and impossible to analyse for a hidden meaning, as in Hey diddle diddle and Sing a Song of Sixpence mentioned above. Or how about this one, a favourite of my own children:

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This working practice has no place in today’s society

 

 

There was an old woman tossed up in a basket,
Ninety-nine times as high as the moon.
Where she was going I couldn’t but ask it,
For in her hand she wielded a broom.
‘Old woman, old woman, old woman,’ said I,
‘Where are you going to up so high?’
‘To sweep the cobwebs off the sky!’
‘May I go with you?’ ‘Aye, by and by.’

 

How wonderful is that image? It literally sends the imagination soaring, all the way to the moon and far, far beyond, through a night sky latticed with cobwebs…

To demand that nursery rhymes be ‘relevant’ when you could offer children such riches feels mean and restricting. And worse. Nursery rhymes are not so different from fairy tales, both in their literary heritage and in their ability to create strange, fantastical worlds. Consider, then, Albert Einstein’s famous advice to parents:
‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’

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Albert Einstein: clearly read a lot of fairy tales

And – as I know Einstein would have added, had it crossed his mind that it might be necessary – please, please don’t try to make them relevant. Not like a hand-puppet board book, This Little Piggy, recently given to my granddaughter. This version, while using charming finger puppets, has ‘updated’ the classic rhyme for our more sensitive (?) era, destroying meaning and rhythm in one fell swoop:

 

This little piggy went to market. (Original line, good. From here things go downhill.)
This little piggy stayed home. (Preposition?)
This little piggy had cookies. (What?? Where’s the roast beef?)
This little piggy had fun. (No, he didn’t. He had NONE. Everyone knows this. Line altered presumably to spare children’s distress for a piggy who had nothing to eat. I have news for the publishers: children don’t care. It’s life. They can cope with that.)
This little piggy sang wee wee wee all the way home. (No, he didn’t. He CRIED wee wee wee. He was squealing. That’s what pigs do.)

Which brings me to the many, many books and recordings of nursery rhymes on the market, and a heartfelt plea: your children matter. Don’t give them rubbish. Buy them a book of the stature of The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes by the incomparable Raymond Briggs: a beautifully illustrated collection, including lesser known rhymes such as Charley Barley, Butter and Eggs as well as Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.

 

IMG_0115And for listening, you can’t do better than Tim Hart’s brilliant folk arrangements Tim Hart and Friends: My Very FavouriteNursery Rhyme Record.

 

(article first posted on http://www.authorselectric.blogspot.co.uk)

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How Grimms’ Fairy Tales can lead to even grimmer fairy tales

It’s amazing what you find out about yourself when someone slips you a few searching questions.  I loved doing this interview with fellow (if a little, ahem, younger) university graduate and writer Amna Boheim http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/.  Who knew that early exposure to toadstools, matryoshka-red-fly-agaric-mushroom-mushrooms-forestgingerbread houses and angry kings could set you on the path to Hell and pacts with demons?  I mean, they could have led to botany, cookery and, oh, I don’t know, the Wars of the Roses.

But in my case they didn’t.

 

 

pexels-photo-185360Discover more about the tangled roots of Ante’s Inferno and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst on Amna’s blog:

http://akboheim.com/newnhamwrites-never-ever-underestimate-a-child/ 

5 top pacts with the devil in literature

The Faustian pact – we all know what it means. The idea of selling your soul to the devil in return for great wealth and power holds a powerful grip on the imagination; it can be applied to all kinds of dubious bargains, the whiff of danger adding excitement to the fantastic amount of money/power/enjoyment you expect to get out of the deal. How can that not make a good story?

To celebrate the imminent publication of The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, here are five top devilish pacts in literature:

  1. To begin at the beginning… the Bible. You expected Marlowe, didn’t you? Nope. God got there first.  The Book of Job is the story of a good, faithful, man being put through terrible suffering, and all because God
    Copyright the State Library of NSW

    Copyright the State Library of NSW

    has a bet with Satan (seriously) over Job’s soul. Pointing out that Job is only good because he has an easy life, Satan gets God to agree that Satan can test Job’s faith by piling calamities on him. ‘ “All right, the Lord said to Satan, “everything he has is in your power, but you must not hurt Job himself.”’ (Job 1, v 12, Good News Bible). Job comes through with flying colours (all the more amazing since Satan interprets ‘not hurting Job himself’ pretty loosely, killing his whole family and covering him with boils) and God wins the bet.

  1. Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. For the English-speaking world at least, this is the great setting of the myth that grew round Dr Johannes Faust, a sinister alchemist and magician who lived in SLIDE 4          Doctor FaustusGermany in the early 16th Marlowe has Faustus offer the demon, Mephistopheles, his soul in exchange for 24 years in which he might

Live in all voluptuousness;

            Having thee ever to attend on me;

            To give me whatsoever I shall ask

            To tell me whatsoever I demand,

            To slay mine enemies, and aid my friends,

            And always be obedient to my will.

            (Doctor Faustus, Scene III)

Heady stuff – but you’d have to have tapioca for brains not to see that 24 years is hardly a good deal. Faustus fools himself by not really believing in damnation – ‘Come, I think hell’s a fable.’ (Doctor Faustus, Scene IV).  Big mistake.

  1. Goethe, Faust. The great 18th century German poet and dramatist took the Faust story and rooted it firmly in the Book of Job, making Faust’s soul the stake of a wager between God and Mephistopheles. Faust has a thirst for knowledge, a scientific curiosity impossible to satisfy because there are more secrets in the universe than he can ever discover. SLIDE 6 Goethe-Faust-Mephistopheles promises to fulfil his every wish in return for his soul; but just as God bets the demon that Faust will ultimately return to Him, so Faust bets Mephistopheles that the demon can’t win his soul because Faust knows he will never be satisfied:

When, to the moment then, I say:

Ah, stay a while! You are so lovely!

Then you can grasp me.http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/FaustIScene IVtoVI.htm

In league with the devil, Faust now enjoys himself immensely and does some terrible things but his mind remains ever restless, striving to know and experience more. And paradoxically, it is this striving that saves him in the end because ‘Whoever strives,’ say the angels, ‘can be redeemed.’  Faust II, Line 11936

  1. Peter SchlemihlAdalbert von Chamisso, Peter Schlemihl. This children’s story written in 1814 adds a new twist: Peter Schlemihl sells the devil not his soul, but
    his shadow, in return for a bottomless wallet. The loss of his shadow makes Peter an outcast but when the devil offers to return the shadow in exchange for his soul, Peter is wise enough to resist him.
  1. The Devil and Homer Simpson (Treehouse of Horror IV).  OK, not literature as such but how could I not include Homer selling 250px-Glazed-Donuthis soul to the devil in exchange for a doughnut? Fortunately for Homer it turns out that his soul wasn’t his to sell in the first place, having given it away to Marge on their wedding day. Ahhhhhhhh.

From the sublime to the ridiculous – but then folk legend has always been packed with stories of simple people tricking the devil. And what unites Homer Simpson, Faust, Schlemiel and all those colourful literary characters who bargain with the devil is an urgent need they can find no other way of meeting. So when plotting my children’s version of the Faust story, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, the one question I had to answer was, what great need would drive 13 year-old Henry Fowst – and his 16th century counterpart, 12 year-old John Striven – to make a pact with a demon?

Well, I’ll give you a clue.

It isn’t a doughnut.