Sing a Song of Sixpence

As convoluted as any royal story in today’s gossip mags, Sing a Song of Sixpence offers plenty of scope for illustration : on paper and in fabric.

This is the only nursery rhyme which I’ve attempted in quilt form (to date.) Completed in about 2002, I didn’t even try to pretend that it was for either of my children. A long and fairly directionless period experimenting with dyes left me with sizeable samples. The consequence of this experimentation was of course that the fabrics go with nothing but each other.  I chanced on one of those serendipitous buys in an op shop : six rolls of indigo cotton, each 14″ wide and more than nine yards on each. This gave me a ground and sashing to attempt my own rebus retelling, in a 5 x 4 setting.

Coloured fabric squares and naive representations of birds and crowns
Hand-dyed fabrics and rough appliqued version of the nursery rhyme

At the time, I felt that the colourways were reminiscent of Raymond Briggs’s rendition of the song. (My linear guess-what’s-happening storytelling can’t compare with his.) The chef’s triumphal entry in full view of the suburban royalty whose house is surely too small for such a theatrical dish. Engaged in their separate activities, their majesties watch the escaping birds like TV. The maid cheerfully and impassively goes on with her laundry, unaware of the one escapee attracted by her cherry red nose.

Coloured picture from a children's poetry book shows a baker staggering under the weight of a pie with birds escaping from it.
Briggs imagines the royal scene as a domestic disaster

William Stobbs shows his monarch doubting the daintiness of the dish. The birds’ open beaks portend the attack on the maid’s nose. Her raised forearm, built up with years of laundering, may triumph.

In a children's songbook, a king reacts with surprise looking at an enormous pie full of birds
Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

Given all these possibilities, then, this block from the Red Nursery Rhyme quilt is not one of its best. Only familiarity with the rhyme could identify this blonde bouffant with purple bubbles as a pie. The stripey deep dish is commodious enough for the two dozen blackbirds, but so much effort has gone into the working of the title that the needleworker was forced to merely sketch a few of the birds escaping.

Appliqued and embroidered picture of a fruit pie with birds flying away from it
Nineteen blackbirds have already flown the block

I’m planning a new quilt based on another nursery rhyme – inspired by the two I’ve studied and written about since seeing NGV’s Making the Australian Quilt, nearly a year ago now.

A novelty children's book collection with line drawings by Randolph Caldecott
Miniature versions of classic illustrated children’s poems and songs

Old Mother Hubbard

Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard

to fetch her poor dog a bone

When she got there 

the cupboard was bare

And so the poor dog had none

Old Mother Hubbard is not the only senior citizen maligned as inept in nursery rhyme. As an imperfect pet-sitter myself,  I can only sympathise with her repeated failures at appeasing the mutt.

Amy Amelia Earl (AAE) stitched the scene with the old mother in her kitchen. The cupboard is barely there itself, let alone having any provisions in it. I suspect she’s been spending the housekeeping money on fine lace and red shoes, not to mention the splendid silk portrait of King George. Not even a bone could be bought after that wanton extravagance.

A cloth picture with appliqued dog and woman with a lace apron
Old Mother Hubbard by AAE

And are those mittens, or furry paws that OMH is gesturing with?

There are many more verses to this rhyme and Raymond Briggs has laid them all out in the wonderful Mother Goose Treasury which deservedly won the Greenaway medal in 1966.

Double spread from a children's nursery rhyme book with black and white line drawings
Raymond Briggs brings Old Mother Hubbard’s dog to life and death and back again

The steady progression of disappointed doggy into Restoration dandy is captured as a pen-and-ink comic strip, pre-figuring his later triumphant Father Christmas (who also had a dog, surely a cousin of this one.)

Harold Jones has a more sinister view of the old woman.

An illustrated verse from a children's book showing a coloured picture of a witch
Old Mother Hubbard by Harold Jones

Don’t let the curtains and wallpaper fool you. This witch is hoping to conjure something up for the wolf at the door, who looks as if he won’t be the one playing dead if the cupboard really is bare.

Apologies for the blurriness of this image from the Red Nursery Rhyme quilt, which doesn’t disguise the poor doggy’s ribby hunger. Once again though the old lady has been impecunious : trimming her shawl before stocking the cupboard.

Cloth picture shows a dog on its hind legs and a woman reaching up to a shelf
Old Mother Hubbard in the Red Nursery Rhyme quilt


I was not wearing lace when this picture was taken, but Jasper is perfectly channelling his feeling that if I go to the cupboard, for him it will be bare. No amount of pipe-smoking or licking dishes will transform me into his servant, and he knows it.

A black-and-white dog stands on brick paving
Jasper plays the part of The Dog


Hey Diddle Diddle

I’m looking at several of the nursery rhymes which appear on my two favourite quilts of the NGV’s 2016 exhibition Making the Australian Quilt (see previous post)I can’t resist the opportunity to share some of my favourite children’s book illustrators’ interpretations as well.

The names given to the quilts by their collector and curators were, respectively, Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes (by unknown maker/s) and Child’s Nursery Rhyme quilt (by Amy Amelia Earl). Those are definitely accurate but potentially confusing for the reader from hereon in. So, with no disrespect to either, I’ll be using the shorthand names I used when taking notes onsite at the exhibition.

Here’s part of the Red Nursery Rhyme Quilt.

Pictures from children's nursery rhymes on an old red quilt hanging on a wall.
Red Nursery Rhyme Quilt

And here is AAE’s quilt.

A glass case with a appliqued and embroidered quilt depicting animals and people
AAE’s quilt

One of the challenges of depicting stories and rhymes on quilts, as in books,  is which character and/or scene to pick. The first rhyme I’ll be talking about has much to challenge the textile artist.

Iona and Peter Opie, writing in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, call it ‘probably the best known nonsense rhyme in the [English] language.’

Hey diddle diddle

The cat and the fiddle

The cow jumped over the moon

The little dog laughed to see such sport

and the dish ran away with the spoon.

Appliqued and embroidered designs on a child's quilt
Amelia Amy Earl’s interpretation of Hey Diddle Diddle

Most of AAE’s quilt is composed of separately worked patches, appliqued onto a large piece of furnishing fabric. That she loved animals is evident in how many there are on this small quilt.  The enigmatic penguin in the upper left of this picture is one of several unknown stories that AAE told to the lucky children she knew:  sad viewers of the 21st century can only guess at it.

But Hey Diddle Diddle is still recognisable to us.  The cat fiddler’s coat resembles faded chenille, and his couched silk shirt, along with golden violin and bow, hint at former grandeur. The other creatures of the rhyme being merely cross-stitched reinforces him as lead player. (Another, larger, black cat made of the same fake fur gazes plaintively with shirt button eyes in another part of the quilt.) Faces on a small scale weren’t really AAE’s forte but her Moon’s cheesy eyes and mouth are the right mixture of crater and grin. They draw us in on the joke while simultaneously avoiding the kicking cow. The knickerbockered dish shoulders the spoon as it runs, and the little dog puts his whole haunches into the laugh.

Harold Jones’s illustrations for  Lavender’s Bluethe beautiful collection of nursery rhymes compiled by Kathleen Lines in the late 1950s, also puts the cat at the centre of the story, if not the scene. All of the characters appear in the shadow of his luminous moon.

Illustration from a child's book of nursery rhymes
Harold Jones illustrates Hey Diddle Diddle

The cow’s satyr-like silhouette frames the scene and the dog’s open-mouthed laugh directs the viewer to take in the incongruity. The pie dish and the spoon scuttle across the field bathed in cold light like fleeing mice – we can’t see their faces. The only figure with any real colour – the cat – deliberately turns its back on the scene which its concentrated music-making accompanies.

Raymond Briggs’s Mother Goose Treasury is a stupendous achievement of illustration. Like Amy Amelia Earl, he makes his figures are sturdy rather than sentimental. In his Hey Diddle, diddle, the animals don’t effect clothing.

Blue coloured illustrations from child's nursery rhyme book
Raymond Briggs illustrated Hey Diddle Diddle

Briggs’s waning crescent moon smiles up at the cow, stretched out towards the inky night like the side of beef it will become. A skeletal dog has flipped itself into mimicking the moon, while the cat is fiddling as if hypnotised. The dish and the spoon run towards the edge of the page,their shadows before them, hands almost touching. The Puffin Mother Goose Bedtime Rhymes, a taste of the original in board book form, sets the rhyme in a background of shiny bright yellow moonlight, which only serves to emphasise the bizarre blue scene.

And so to the Red Nursery Rhyme quilt’s version. Whoever decided to make this block literally cut to the chase.


Embroidered figures on a quilt block with a title HEY DIDDLE DIDDLE
Red quilt maker illustrated Hey Diddle Diddle

It’s difficult to escape the feeling that the dish is eyeing the spoon’s slender form lasciviously: a child will just see their glee as naughtiness we hope.  If I’m right though, the master, Randolph Caldecott, pictured the end of the story best.

A pen and ink sketch illustrating a nursery rhyme
The sad end of an unnatural elopement – illustration by Randolph Caldecott


The Opies say that Hey Diddle Diddle‘s  first appearance in print was in a book called MG’S Melody around 1765. That version has the line, ‘The little dog laughed to see such craft‘ : thanks to these quiltmakers, so do we.

Stories in Stitches


I may have become obsessive during the recent Making the Australian Quilt exhibition at NGV Australia. (Getting nods from the visitor services staff is a clue that you’re there too often.) It was completely worth it to get to know my favourite quilts intimately.

Co-curators Katie Somerville and Annette Gero did a wonderful job, and I was fortunate to be invited to the opening.

A woman stands in front of a colourful quilt hung on the wall of an art gallery
Margaret Robson Kett in front of Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes NGV Australia

In Perth, about 2004, I went to a presentation by Dr Gero with my friend Sue, exquisite quilter and sister children’s librarian. The evening was hosted by WAQA  and meeting the Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes (pictured above) was the highlight of it. This splendid array of applique and embroidery looks like 42 covers in a picture book display. There are 32 nursery rhymes represented in 34 of the squares – Jack and Jill and The Queen of Hearts are depicted twice – and the eight remaining are popular stories and books.

The books were an important factor in dating the unsigned quilt – publication dates being more exact than the older nursery rhymes and stories. During that evening, I helped identify a block labelled ‘Amelia Ann’ as a book by Constance Heward, first published in 1920. (The title is actually Ameliaranne and the Green Umbrella.) Here she is.

Pictures from children's nursery rhymes on an old red quilt hanging on a wall.
Amelia Ann and her Green Umbrella at centre top of this detail from Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes.

The other books were Bambi, Brer Rabbit and a mysterious gem called The Forgetful Elephant which is peeping out from behind a dressing gown in this picture.

My increasing impatience with people exclaiming ‘Look! There’s Babar!’ (have I mentioned I saw this exhibition many times?) led me on a mission to identify this story. After a false (but charming) lead, I found it at State Library Victoria.

A children's story book with a red cover and the title The Forgetful Elephant.
Cover of the mystery children’s book depicted on Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes.

Unfortunately the book, like the quilt, is undated, but the noble cataloguers at SLV have estimated it as 1944. It was called ‘garish and vulgar’ by a leading Australian children’s literature critic  but that’s a bit harsh. Here’s the title page, which the unknown quiltmaker has used as the block design.

Black and white illustration of an elephant with pants on in a children's book
Title page and inspiration for block of the same name in Child’s Quilt with Nursery Rhymes

There was another ‘story’ quilt close to this one in the exhibition : Child’s Nursery Rhyme Quilt by Amy Amelia Earl, signed and dated 1923.

A glass case with a appliqued and embroidered quilt depicting animals and people
Child’s Nursery Rhyme quilt by Amy Amelia Earl

These weren’t the only quilts made for, or used by, children – Mary Jane Hannaford’s delightful Good Night quilt, made for her grandson, was another. No doubt many a bored Victorian girl amused away a Sunday looking at tiny embroidered names and figures – some designed by book illustrator Kate Greenaway –  in a crazy quilt.

I began looking really closely at the nursery rhymes depicted on both of these quilts, which were companions in the exhibition, and wondering how and why particular ones were pictured. I was intrigued to see those from my childhood that my children never heard or don’t know (Dick Whittington), and to not see the most wellknown Anglo-Celtic one of their generation (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star).

I’ll be examining some of the rhymes, and how these quiltmakers represented them, in upcoming blogs. I won’t be talking about what the rhymes ‘mean’ – that’s covered by the excellent scholarship of the Opies –  but I will be looking closely at how their transformation into needlework has elevated them beyond the ditty.

I did say I may have become obsessive.






Surely Shirley


Picture books, with their simple aim to please the most visually receptive audience there is – the very young – survive in an era of stridently overwhelming imagery. Shirley Hughes

I’ve spent the last few months working on a tribute to Dorothy Butler for the IBBY Congress. In the excellent Babies Need Books, Butler says: ‘Shirley Hughes draws children’s outsides in a way which leaves no doubt about her knowledge of their insides.’ (p138.) Here’s an illustration from Babies Need Books itself which demonstrates her point.

Black and white drawing of a baby looking at a book and laughing
When I was One

Long before I saw this book, though, I had Hughes’ illustrations in my bones from my childhood reading.

Hughes wrote in her 2002 memoir A Life Drawing : recollections of an illustrator:

I never wanted to be a painter, always an illustrator. I am often mildly surprised when asked why I didn’t aspire to ‘real’ art. Illustrating is a very different endeavour from painting, though just as exacting. Painters concentrate on communicating through just single one image which says everything about a particular moment in time, or an existential experience. But an illustrator is committed to producing a whole series of connected images which relate strongly from one to another. They must pack in a lot of clear visual information and descriptive characterisation if they are to hold the narrative, but carry it with a lightness of touch, a distinctive style.

Her versatility is apparent in just one cover:

Cover of a children's book with drawings of the diverse characters
Hughes’s versatility and vibrancy on show

There was a wonderful breakthrough when Noel Streatfield, then the doyenne of children’s authors, saw one of my illustrations in an anthology and asked Collins to commission me to illustrate her next book, The Bell Family. This was based on a radio serial performed on BBC Children’s Hour, about a vicar’s family living in a poor London parish. There was a lot of cheerful make-do-and-mend and a triumph of family affection. The characterisation and dialogue were excellent.

Here’s an illustration from Streatfield’s The Painted Garden, which I first read when I was about 12. Streatfield specialised in family dynamics and, in particular, the intricate and sometimes baffling interplay of personality between sisters. Maybe that was the appeal for me, dealing with two infuriatingly mysterious ones myself.

A black and white drawing of a girl on the telephone
Rachel hears bad news


In this novel, Rachel is the talented beautiful elder sister, a dancer waiting to fulfil her unlimited potential. Jane is the younger – difficult, quarrelsome and not particularly good at anything except loving dogs and vociferously kicking against her helplessness at every opportunity. Tim is their musically-precocious younger brother. All three of them have their lives altered by a year’s displacement, from London to Los Angeles.

A black and white drawing of a child in clothes typical of the Edwardian period
Jane dressed as Mary for the film The Secret Garden

Hughes added the extra dimension to my reading of this story and put her pen firmly on what it was to be at home, and a stranger, all at once.

It’s in picture books that Hughes’ understanding and abilities came into full flower.

 Children minutely examine and absorb the images in their books and return to them over and over again. As an illustrator this is a huge responsibility. You are aiming not only to enhance the book as a beautiful object, worth hanging onto. You are adding another emotional dimension, combining with the text to amplify the imaginative response the author seeks to elicit from the reader. The height of your ambition is to give your author, reader and publisher not only what they want exactly but what they never dreamed they could have.


Cover of a children's picture book showing a procession of people carrying furniture and boxes
‘…a small girl’s loneliness after the family moves house is resolved in the only possible way when she finally, triumphantly, makes friends.’ Dorothy Butler

In Moving Molly, the telling gesture is expressed in Molly’s taking leave of the empty house she’s always known. The attentive reader sees this small girl’s feelings, in the small gesture of examining a tear in the wallpaper, and leaving her mark.

Alfie is much too busy to examine wallpaper.

Colour cover of a children's picture book for small children
An intrepid three-year-old’s journey from triumph to hero.

We are, amongst other things, trying to entice children (and adults) to make their own leisurely exploration of a picture. Even to perceive the difference between a photograph and a painting. It is no good simply cramming the frame with detailed information, all of which is given equal emphasis. A picture book is a drama. We aim to lead the eye to the bit of the stage where the main action is taking place, to highlight a telling gesture, a touching facial expression or an important detail tucked away somewhere which is a vital clue to the plot. And, more importantly, to invite the reader to inhabit that interface between word and image, the space you are always trying to leave for their imagination.

This small drama is exactly the same size as its intended reader. Only another three-year-old knows how quickly triumph (running faster than Mum and the stroller) can lead to a gesture of bravado (slamming the front door) – bringing you back down to your real size and status. Or does it.  Hughes mutely and perfectly shows how Alfie solves the problem he himself created, despite the hectic and desperate actions of the adults around him. Nobody is blamed or shamed in this process, and the beauty of the book for the parent reader lies in its affirmation that life is made of these small moments.

















Pure Gold

I’m one of those waiters… I can’t just wait. I have to read.

Forget New Idea – my doctor’s waiting room has these beauties.

Books for children lying on a chair in a doctor's waiting room
Little Golden Book Library as found in doctor’s waiting room

I was particularly pleased to see them because I was shortly to depart for Auckland for the International Board of Books for Young People Congress. One of the Congress’s chief attractions was the opportunity to hear and see Leonard Marcus, author of the comprehensive history of Little Golden Books (A Golden Legacy).

It’s fascinating to read the history of these often maligned books.

Here’s one from my childhood, which plays into the broad perception of them as Disney retellings. I can’t remember seeing the film as a child but was given a Bambi toy made of bright red felt by my grandmother’s neighbour.  The toy maintains just this pose. (I still have it but he has requested not to be photographed in his present moth-eaten condition.)

Children's book with golden spine titled Walt Disney's Bambi
Not my childhood copy but close.


But here’s the one that was my real favourite, from one of the surgery volumes. As Marcus tells in his book, many fine children’s illustrators worked on these books. The pictures for this one were signed J. P. Miller. His experience working (for Disney, as many talented artists have) shows in the excellent design and layout of this tale.  As the story opens, he kills the flies attracted to his meal and embroiders ‘Seven at One Blow’ on a belt. This leads to a tactical advantage over a giant, which he exploits with characteristic folktale hubris to free his town.

Page from a children's illustrated book shows a man sitting crosslegged with cloth and scissors, taking a bite of bread and jam
The brave little tailor tucks in

The artist who worked for Little Golden Books that I most admire is Feodor Rojankovsky. The colour in all of his books is beautifully saturated, especially the deep reds and yellows which are truly golden, recalling woven and embroidered textiles of his native Russia. His interpretation of Frog Went A’Courtin’ won him the Caldecott medal two years before I was born. I encountered it at the St Kilda Public Library during my first job as a children’s librarian. I instantly loved his crayonned evocation of inter-species courtship and feisty Miss Mouse standing her ground – “Without my uncle Rat’s consent, I would not marry the President!” 

Here’s a page from his Goldilocks, for Little Golden Books.

Illustration from a children's book shows a little girl sitting on a bed piled high with quilts and pillows
Goldilocks shows her discriminating taste in bedding

In researching my recent Instagram homage to Dorothy Butler’s work (@babiesneedbooks) I came across his alphabet, also published by Golden Books but in a picture book format called Big Golden Books.

Cover of a children's alphabet book showing a toy horse made of letters
Feodor Rojankovsky’s Alphabet of Many Things

As a picture book critic, I’m forced to say that I think there’s evidence on some pages that Golden Books pushed Rojankovsky into this project. The quality of reproduction is not great, several illustrations are little more than roughs, and the usual miscellany that vocabularies result in makes for a jumpy read. All is forgiven for the rapturous endpapers.

Open pages of a children's book showing letters of the alphabet represented in many different styles
Rojankovsky demonstrates his versatility in the endpaper of his alphabet book

Since I read Marcus’s book, I’ve collected the Golden Geography and a few other titles, which there’s no space here to share.

I ran out of time in the waiting room and had to leave the books behind for child patients. As the photo shows, they’re well used.

There’s been a certain nostalgia-driven upsurge in interest in these books – the regrettable Everything I Need to Know I’ve Learned from Little Golden Books – and they’ve become fashion. Recent illustrators such as Dan Yaccarino have worked for Little Golden Books too.

Read the history, cast your mind back and let me know your favourites.

Mice and Hedgehogs and Rabbits, oh my


It’s been 150 years since Beatrix Potter was born.

State Library Victoria’s Juliet O’Conor has published this tribute, with a tantalising glimpse inside some treasures in the Library’s collection. Last year, an exhibition called Inspiration by Design at SLV featured original illustrations by Potter from the V&A’s collection. (I’ve written about the Crane illustrations from that exhibition in a previous blog post.)

Here’s the extent of my Potter collection – the remaining titles from a boxed set I bought on my one and only trip to London in 1984. That’s them, squeezing the Golden Books.

A white bookshelf with mostly children's books, spine out
Potters at bottom left

Their number has been reduced (from the original 23 in the box) to the titles that were my and my children’s favourites. My pre-parenting favourites were The Tale of Two Bad Mice and The Tale of Mrs Tiggywinkle. Here’s that prickly laundress facing an ironing challenge.

A china figurine of a hedgehog in an apron holding an iron.
Mrs Tiggywinkle has her iron at the ready.

The idea that a hedgehog did the other animals’ laundry and mending directly references the huge domestic workforce that fuelled Victorian society.  The steamy claustrophobic kitchen where Mrs Tiggywinkle dips, rinses and presses, all the while gossiping about how her customers soiled their clothes, fascinates both Lucie and the reader. The attention to detail in Potter’s work has been commented on by critic Janet Adam Smith:  ‘The sage that Jemima Puddleduck nibbles to make her own stuffing, the crab-apples and green fir-cones with which Nutkin plays nine-pins, suggest the strawberries and columbines of Tudor and Stuart embroideries.’

My friend Anne’s family obviously loved her work too.

Children's books on a shelf, spines out
Potters with pottery pig

My children’s favourite books were Jeremy Fisher, Miss Moppet and the Fierce Bad Rabbit. I followed Dorothy Butler’s advice : ‘Don’t risk overlooking their capacity to captivate and the opportunity they offer to familarise the small child’s ear with precise, Victorian parlour language…As an antidote to the banalities of television utterance, Beatirx Potter’s easily available little books should not go unused.’ (p85, Babies Need Books) Sorry, DB – the kids were also the perfect age to enjoy the BBC’s charming adaptations of the stories in the mid 1990s.

I recently had the pleasure of seeing a friend’s copy of a beautiful rare edition.


Small cover of children's book with coloured picture of a rabbit.
Closed view of The Story of a Fierce Bad Rabbit special foldout edition.
Book covers with concertina pages spread out
Unfolded pages of The Fierce Bad Rabbit – concertina edition: read as it unfolds.


Back to Peter Rabbit to finish with. After publisher Frederick Warne’s initial rejection, Potter privately printed and distributed the book – comfort and inspiration for this aspiring picture book writer.When Warne reconsidered, they politely but firmly rejected the “improved” text suggested by Potter’s family friend Canon Rawnsley, which read in part: They sat down to tea / Too good-mannered to cram / and ate bread and milk / and sweet blackberry jam. 

Happy birthday, Beatrix.