elogo - Exemplary Childrens Literature Project for Scholarly Education
Mother Goose
Petra Mathers
elogo bottom Mother Goose: A Scholarly Exploration
what makes a Mother Goose a Mother Goose?
Bird Goddess
Everyday Activities
Mother Goose in Flight
Flocks and Families
Mother Goose as Crone
Attire and Accoutrements
Ethnicity and Universality
the nursery rhymes
Mother Goose visual challenges
life and history
zimmerli art museum
emergent literacy
social & political uses of Mother Goose
advertisement and imagery
digitization of early nursery rhyme books
an early Mother Goose play
mother goose online
research pathfinder
external resources

What Makes a Mother Goose a Mother Goose?

Many of those interested in art will be familiar with the series of books on the works of various artists produced by the Museum of Modern Art entitled What Makes a (Artist’s Name) a (Artist’s Name) ? These books point to various elements of composition, technique, and subject matter to help viewers identify and appreciate the work of a particular artist. When we ask “What Makes a Mother Goose a Mother Goose?” we introduce a more complex question. Thousands of artists have interpreted the character of Mother Goose using various media, approaches, and settings. Nonetheless, her image, in its many forms, is a familiar one. As we explore various illustrations here, we look at some of the factors that make Mother Goose a recognizable character to young and old alike.

Popular American children’s poet and publisher Bruce Lansky has his own take on reinventing time-honored nursery rhymes. Lansky writes " I couldn’t overlook the violent, scary, mean-spirited, or just plain weird aspects of many of the rhymes, so I eventually got out of the habit of reading Mother Goose to my children. When I talked to other parents about my experience with Mother Goose rhymes, I discovered I wasn’t alone. A few enjoyed passing on the traditional rhymes to their children, but a significant number either let their books gather dust on their bookshelves or revised the rhymes so their children would have positive bedtime-reading experiences."

If you close your eyes and picture Mother Goose, who or what do you see? Is your Mother Goose a human woman or is she a personified goose? What does your Mother Goose wear? Who is with her, and what is she doing? Is she flying? Is she reading? Is she old or young? Is she contemporary, or is she old fashioned? Who or what surrounds her?

We asked a number of people to tell us what they thought Mother Goose looked like. Though some saw a woman and some a goose, they almost always imagined her wearing a bonnet of some sort. And, when she was a human female, they pictured her as older. The most striking response was when we suggested to one man that it was odd that Mother Goose was never pictured as a young mother; after all, she is Mother Goose. His reaction was almost visceral. No! Mother Goose just couldn't be young---she had to be old. A young Mother Goose was obviously inconceivable in his mind. Such strong impressions of this favorite fictional character are not uncommon and confirm Mother Goose’s importance as an inhabitant of our shared literary landscape.

“Mother Goose will show newcomers to this world how astonishing, beautiful, capricious, dancy, eccentric, funny, goluptious, haphazard, intertwingled, joyous, kindly, living, melodious, naughty, outrageous, pomsidillious, querimonious, romantic, silly, tremendous, unexpected, vertiginous, wonderful, e-citing, yo-heave-ho-ish, and zany it is. And when we come to be grandmothers, it is just as well to be reminded of these twenty-six attributes.”

— Iona Opie in My Very First Mother Goose.

The following collection of Mother Goose illustrations focuses attention on some of the commonalities among key content elements of Mother Goose imagery, in spite of major differences in media and specific interpretations. As you consider these images, you might keep your own vision of Mother Goose in mind, and ask yourself, “What makes a Mother Goose a Mother Goose?” You might also help the young children with whom you work study various images of Mother Goose in their own search for the answer to this question.

ECLIPSE Image Number 00270006

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Supported in part by a grant from the Pilot Projects Program of the Rutgers Information Sciences Council (ISC)

Principal Investigator: Kay E. Vandergrift, Professor Emerita

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