Sing a Song of Sixpence: an Ode to Mother Goose

How many of these nursery rhymes do you know? Can you finish any of them?

• Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall . . .
• Sing a song of sixpence . . .
• Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater . . .

Via the Greenwich Workshop.

• Jack be nimble . . .
• Old King Cole was a merry old soul . . .
• Jack Sprat could eat no fat . . .
• Little Jack Horner . . .

Via the Greenwich Workshop.

• Polly put the kettle on . . .
• Hector Protector was all dressed in green . . .
• Mary had a little lamb . . .

Via the Greenwich Workshop.

• Elsie Marley’s grown so fine . . .
• Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea . . .
• Hey Diddle Diddle, the cat and the fiddle . . .
• Rub a dub dub, three men in a tub . . .

Via the Greenwich Workshop.

• Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? . . .
• There was an old woman who lives in a shoe . . .
• Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet . . .
• Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross . . .
• Mary, Mary, quite contrary . . .

Via the Greenwich Workshop.

• Bye, baby bunting . . .
• Boys and girls come out to play . . .
• Ring around the rosy . . .
• Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town . . .
• Three blind mice, see how they run! . . .
• Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man . . .

Via the Greenwich Workshop.

• Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn . . .
• Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John . . .
• Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep . . .


• Hot cross buns! Hot cross buns! . . .
• Baa baa, black sheep, have you any wool? . . .
• There was an old woman tossed up in a basket . . .


• Curly locks, Curly locks, Wilt thou be mine? . . .
• Little Tommy Tucker sings for his supper . . .
• Jack and Jill went up the hill . . .


• Hickory, dickory, dock . . .
• The man in the moon Came down too soon . .
• Old Mother Hubbard went to her cupboard . . .


While reading my first L. Frank Baum biography, I realized that he and I had a lot in common. Besides the facts that we both vacationed at Macatawa Park, we’re both writers, and our creativity often gets in the way of practicality, he was an avid fan of Mother Goose rhymes—just like me.

In 1896, he published Mother Goose in Prose (illustrated by Maxfield Parrish). These are Baum’s own narratives of how particular nursery rhyme situations came about–the back story, if you will. The tales answered questions like: how did Bo Peep lose and find her sheep? Why was Mary so contrary? And why in the world did the cow jump over the moon?

In 1899, Baum and illustrator W.W. Denslow collaborated on Father Goose, His Book, a volume of original rhymes. Baum, like Father Goose, took over the care of the children when Mrs. Baum was out and about. Thus ends the first poem:

When Mother Goose at last returned
For her there was no use;
The goslings much preferred to hear
The tales of Father Goose.

I’ve always loved nursery rhymes. I own several Mother Goose books and refused to pack them away even after my kids outgrew them. I think fondly of times we read and reveled together in various illustrators’ renditions of each character’s predicament.

A favorite is Scott Gustafson’s Favorite Nursery Rhymes from Mother Goose. Most of the above illustrations are his.

Another favorite one is by illustrator Michael Hague.

I, too, have considered the back story of the nursery rhymes. First, I was interested in the literal history of each rhyme and how they came to be. Supposedly, many of them are succinct ways to capture tidbits of historical facts from the 16th through the 19th centuries of British history. The rhymes may have been political satire.

These legends may have no grounds, but it’s fun to speculate.

For example . . .

• The Old Woman and Her Shoe—The numerous children are a reference to the British monarchy’s colonies.
• Sing a Song of Sixpence—the King is Henry VIII, the Queen is Katharine of Aragon, the Maid is Ann Boleyn (soon to be queen); the 24 blackbirds are 24 deeds dispatched to Henry VIII.
• Little Boy Blue and Little Tom Tucker are both Cardinal Wolsey. Jack and Jill falling down the hill and Old Mother Hubbard and her dog mark Wolsey’s decline.
• Queen Mary cut off the 3 Blind Mice’s tails with a carving knife—supposedly a reference to burning three men at the stake. Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer had frustrated her efforts to Romanize the church at the expense of the Church of England.
• Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary and Little Miss Muffet are none other than Mary, Queen of Scots, while reformer John Knox is the spider who sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffet away.
• Wee Willie Winkie was William of Orange.
• Georgie Porgie was George I.
• The 3 Wise Men of Gotham who went to sea in a bowl were men in the village of Gotham who avoided a royal visit by King John.
• “Baa Baa Black Sheep, have you any wool?” is in reference to the great demand for wool at the time, which overtook the need for field labor. This was a chief complaint of the working class. “One for my master and one for my dame, and one for the little boy who lives down the lane”–these refer to the nobility and the common people.
• Little Jack Horner—the Bishop of Glastonbury sent steward Jack Horner to Henry VIII with title deeds of twelve estates hidden in a Christmas pie. Jack pulled one out and kept it.

I can’t verify if all that’s true, but it’s intriguing. I suppose you could adapt any given nursery rhyme to a particular situation—or make one up.

Also, being a lover of folk and fairy tales, I’ve often imagined the lands where these characters live. I’ve wondered if Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty ever met. Or if the 3 Bears ever met up with the 3 Pigs and the 3 Billy Goats Gruff to swap villain stories about Goldilocks, wolves, and trolls. Are Red Riding Hood’s wolf and the 3 Pigs’ wolf one and the same? Or are there multiple wolves out there causing trouble?

Whether these tales originate in England, Germany, France, or elsewhere, they all emerged from the collective human psyche. With variations on a theme from different countries. So it’s possible the characters know each other, right?

Also . . .

• How did Rumplestiltskin get his name anyhow?
• Did the Bremen Town Musicians stay in Bremen forever?
• What was it like for Tom Thumb to be so little?
• Did Lazy Jack stay lazy after winning the princess’s hand in marriage?

Wondering about these questions is why I love the so-called “fractured” fairy tales, where children’s authors have written humorous retellings, parodies, or sequels . . .

Folk & Fairy Tales:

The Frog Prince, Continued, by Jon Scieszka

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, by John Scieszka

The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales, by John Scieszka

The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza), by Philemon Sturges

Falling for Rapunzel, by Leah Wilcox

The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, by Eugene Trizizas

The Runaway Tortilla, by Eric Kimmel

Cindy Ellen: Wild Western Cinderella, by Susan Lowell

Waynetta and the Cornstalk, a Texas Fairy Tale, by Helen Kitteman

Dear Peter Rabbit, by Alma Flor Ada—a delightful mixture of Peter Rabbit’s family, Goldilocks, the 3 Bears, the 3 Pigs, and Red Riding Hood

Yours Truly, Goldilocks, by Alma Flor Ada—more of the same

Mixture of folk & fairy tales & Mother Goose rhymes:

The Jolly Postman, by Janet & Allan Ahlberg—interactive, hands-on with pull-out letters to and from fairy tale and Mother Goose characters.

The Jolly Christmas Postman, by Janet & Allan Ahlberg

Based on Mother Goose rhymes:

The Missing Tarts, by B. G. Hennessy

Each Peach Pear Plum, by Janet & Allan Ahlberg

For Adults:

Politically Correct Bedtime Stories, by James Finn Garner

That’s just a sampling of what’s out there. If you’re looking for a fun book gift for the children in your life, check these out. And if you need a creative writing idea, try this:

One of my favorite teaching activities with 4th through 8th graders
is to have them write stories patterned after folktales.
We recall the original tale, such as The Three Pigs,
then read several retellings and parodies.
They get the idea.

Then they choose a different setting for a well known tale,
change up the details, and voila!
They’ve created their own fractured fairy tale.
I’m always amazed at their cleverness.

Writing stories this way is a great starting point for a student who doesn’t have confidence in coming up with her own story. A great starting point for adults, too. Give it a try!

Anyhow, back to Mother Goose.

I’ve often wondered why Mother Goose verses have so many Toms, Jacks, and Marys. Surely that must be confusing in Nursery Rhyme Land. Especially since they don’t have surnames. With the exception of Tommy Tucker, Bobby Shafto, and Wee Willie Winkie.

Actually, there could be more surnames. Even though I’m familiar with dozens of Mother Goose verses, I’ve seen books with scads more rhymes that I’d never heard of.

So why was Humpty Dumpty sitting on the wall to began with? Doesn’t he know that’s a precarious place for an egg to sit?

Via the Greenwich Workshop.

Why was Elsie Marley lying in bed till nine? I doubt she was sick. Surely the swine would raise a “stink” (pardon the pun) at not being fed yet. It would be tough to sleep through all that snorting racket.

Via Salley Mavor at

And why does Tommy Tucker have to sing for his supper?

I’m not the only one who loves these rhymes. Check out the library or any bookstore’s children’s section to find a garden variety of illustrators who capture the rhymes in their own unique artistic styles.

The mother of my neighbor Judith collected Mother Goose books for decades. After her mother passed away, Judith and her sister donated them to the Carroll University library in Waukesha, for primary teachers. It took forever to lug all the books out of the house after finding them tucked away in various shelves, nooks, and crannies.

And it took forever to count . . . 700 books! In one lady’s personal collection.

Why my girls were about four and six, we picked our favorite rhymes to create a book. They took turns posing as Mary Contrary, Little Miss Muffet, Polly, Bo Peep, and more. After developing the pictures (yes, that’s what we had to do back in the old days of 1996), we taped them into our homemade book with the handwritten rhymes. That was just as much a favorite to browse through as the ones we’d bought.

In 1994, when my girls were four and two, I got a hankering to create a Mother Goose landscape. I got out my sketch pad and pencils and went to work planning it. I had to snatch moments when the girls were sleeping or playing.

Let’s see . . . the picture needed a variety of habitats . . .

• a castle area for rhymes like Old King Cole and The Queen of Hearts.
• a barnyard for Baa Baa Black Sheep and Tom the Piper’s son stealing a pig.
• a schoolhouse for Mary and her lamb and the ten o’clock scholar.
• a hill and well for Jack and Jill to tumble down.

• a river for the 3 men in a tub, Little Tommy Tittlemouse, and the 3 wise men of Gotham heading to sea in a bowl.
• a meadow for Little Boy Blue’s and Bo Peep’s sheep.
• a big shoe for the old woman with her children.
• a large homey pumpkin for Peter and his wife.

The hand-drawn border includes the titles of each of the 68 nursery rhymes.

• a garden of silver bells and cockle shells for Mary Contrary
• signs to Gloucester, Drury Lane, St. Ives, Banbury, and Gotham.

• a town and market for the Muffin Man, Simple Simon and the Pieman, and the Barber shaving a pig.
• a road for taking the pig to market and riding a cock-horse to Banbury Fair.
• a house where Polly puts the kettle on and Curly Locks sits on a cushion to sew a fine seam.

Then there’s Georgie Porgie, the Mouse running up the clock, Old Mother Hubbard and her dog, Little Miss Muffet, Mother Goose herself, and dozens more.

Months later when I finished the drawing, my daughters and I got much pleasure from finding and reciting the familiar rhymes and learning some not-so-familiar ones.

****68 Nursery Rhymes all together in one colored pencil landscape****

68 Nursery Rhymes

Friends told me to make copies, so off to the printer I went. I sold a couple hundred over the next few years, and currently sell them on Etsy. If you’re interested, check the sidebar to the right. It makes a great gift for a nursery, daycare center, pre-school, or elementary classroom.

Do you have a favorite nursery rhyme or Mother Goose book?

I welcome your comments below!

Ever musing,


By clicking “subscribe,” you agree with the terms of the privacy policy noted on the bottom of our website.
“We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.” 

15 thoughts on “Sing a Song of Sixpence: an Ode to Mother Goose

  1. I was amazed at how many of the nursery rhymes I could finish. I think my grandma recited them a lot.

    My newest favorite fractured fairy tales book is Once Upon a Time, The End (asleep in 60 seconds) by Klondike and Blitt.
    Yes, it’s probably more for adults than kids, but it’s fabulous. Just makes me howl because, boy, have I been there!

  2. I’m forwarding this to my son, who, though he is not married and has no children, collects rare and first editions of children’s books. He loves kids 4 to 12, and they love him. He has a treehouse, 23 feet off the ground, accessed only be a solar powered elevator, that has a reading and writing/drawing nook for the kids in his neighborhood. When I lived in his house for 2 years, it would not be uncommon for kids to come to the door and ask if he could come out and play. He has multiple other kid-orientated things in his yard like a balance beam, more than a dozen hand-made hula hoops, a sky chair/swing and a garden railroad. He’s 50 and, oh yes, he’s not some creepy pervert – just likes but never had kids.

    1. Every neighborhood needs a guy like your son! He sounds like a kid at heart. No wonder the kids show up asking him to play! And a solar powered elevator for a treehouse? Wow!

  3. What a fun post! Yes, I’m familiar with most of the rhymes. Now I want to gift my grandchildren with some of the books you mentioned. We have something else in common! I wrote a series of skits called “Happily Ever After?” about what fairy tale characters’ lives were like AFTER the “and they lived happily ever after.” It was a blast to imagine the 3 bears dealing with an insurance adjuster, the ugly stepsisters looking for a man—any man—now that Charming was gone, and the emperor being suspicious of whether or not the clothes he wanted to buy were really visible or not.

    About that nursery rhyme print—it is even more fun in real life! I finally got a frame to do it justice! Now to find wall space to hang it…

    1. I love your skit ideas! Wish I could have seen them. I had students who spun some clever fairy tale sequels, too.

      So glad you’re enjoying the nursery rhyme print!

  4. I teach a music and movement class for preschoolers once a week and for fingerplays in December we use Jack Be Nimble. The kids love it because I get out a candlestick, and they each get to take a turn jumping over it :).

  5. Fun post Laura! I had a favorite book of nursery rhymes when I was a youngster, and had most of the rhymes memorized – at least the ones I found interesting. Also loved your musings about possible meanings behind the rhymes – very intriguing!

  6. The rhythm of rhyme is hard to resist. No wonder I know so many nursery rhymes when I have forgotten so much else! It makes it so easy to remember facts and numbers (something I am very bad at) and even nonsense. I am so thankful to those who have written the truth in poetry form so I can remember it easier. Hymns for example. Several years ago my daughter wrote a version of Psalms 150 in Dr. Seuss form and it worked so well! (At least I thought so)

    Getting back to nursery rhymes. I love Scott Gustafson’s illustrations. And I thought of the Ahlbergs’ “Each Peach Pear Plum” immediately. I read that so many times to my kids that still have it memorized over 30 years later. We all loved how one nursery rhyme led to another in this great picture book. And we never even owned a copy… just kept taking out of the library over and over and over again at the kids’ request. Now I wish I had a copy 🙂 Thanks for the memories, Laura.

    1. Looks like you need to get yourself a copy of Each Peach Pear Plum!

      I know–there are verses I remember from childhood for the same reasons you cited. The rhyme and rhythm never leave you. Which is also why I sang a lot of scripture songs to my kids when they were little.

      I’m intrigued by the notion of putting Psalm 150 into Dr. Seuss’s style. That would definitely be memorable!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *