I grew up with the orange set of Childcraft encylopedias. I’m not sure what edition that was but a few years ago I purchased a 1960 set with tan covers. I bought it for the poems and probably paid about five dollars. I’ve seen a 1948 orange set on eBay for $75. That set probably has the “Little Black Sambo” story which was removed from later editions.
I loved the first two books in Childcraft set, especially after I could read on my own. I had very little reading material since our town’s library had only a single short bookshelf for the primary grades and I whipped through that pretty quickly. The words of Angelo Patri, the editor for Poems of Early Childhood, are still true.
You can give a child very little that he can keep as his own. You can give him a good book. There is no finer gift within your power.
The volume begins with Mother Goose stories which have always confused me. Why would you want to keep your wife in a pumpkin shell? Did Peter carve it like a Jack-o-lantern? Why would Jack’s crown be fixed with vinegar and brown paper? But I loved the repetition and symmetry (or lack thereof) in “There was a Crooked Man” even though I had no idea what a stile could be.
After Mother Goose, there are poems by others with names you’ll recognize, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, and others who you might not. I especially enjoyed poems by Christina Rossetti and Walter de la Mare. And I had no idea that a poem I had recited to me often because of my curly hair — “There was a little girl — was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. That’s the same guy who wrote The Song of Hiawatha.
Mix a Pancake
Mix a pancake,
Stir a pancake,
Pop it in the pan;
Fry the pancake,
Toss the pancake—
Catch it if you can.
– Christina Rossetti
I don’t think there’s a single poem in this collection that was copyrighted after 1945. I do hope that the current edition has kept some of these lovely old poems. Maybe not the ones that are terribly sexist, but the others. And I’d like them to correct a few poems that I remember with different words than are printed here. The poem for remembering the number of days in a month should end with “except February in fine, each leap year twenty-nine.” I fervently believe this even though “in fine” makes no sense.
The photo above of Mary Middling and her pig is from an illustration by Mary Royt. I find it sad that this artist hasn’t garnered a Wikipedia entry yet. I love the look on that pig. Eloise Wilkin was another of the illustrators. She created the most innocent looking little girls.
And it was Roger Duvoisin who did that terribly cute illustration of the gingham dog and the calico cat.
I would lose myself in the poems and illustrations in this book. It was a favorite of mine and of my older sister. In fact, we used to have poem competitions to see who could recite the most. We loved to run through then entirety of “The House that Jack Built.” It’s probably something we should go apologize to our mother for.
I have to leave you with one more poem. This is a new favorite and not one that I remember from childhood.
The kangaroo said to her son,
“I wish you would get down and run.
We don’t have a car
And I’ve packed you so far —
Now try out your legs, just for fun.”
Said the bear, with a growl, “I refuse
My company manners to use.
I’ve saved them so long
That I get them on wrong,
But I can be quite nice when I choose.”
Said the donkey, “They jeer me a lot.
Something funny about me I’ve got.
I bray and, of course,
I’m not built like a horse.
But still, I’m a donkey — so what?”
– Elizabeth Newell
OK, just one more. I think I need to memorize this one and bring it out next spring to amaze my friends or annoy my husband.
The Willow Cats
They call them pussy willows,
but there’s no cat to see
Except the little furry toes
That stick out on the tree.
I think that very long ago,
When I was just born new,
There must have been whole pussycats,
Where just the toes stick through—
And every spring it worries me,
I cannot ever find
Those willow cats that ran away
And left their toes behind!
– Margaret Widdemer
MORE on the Childcraft collection:
Poems of Early Childhood
Storytelling and Other Poems
Folk and Fairy Tales
Animal Friends and Adventures
Life in Many Lands
Great Men and Famous Deeds
Exploring the World Around Us
Creative Play and Hobbies
Art for Children