FOLDEROL | My Adventure in Mother Goose Land

One of my earliest memories is reading an oversized hardcover edition of Holly Hobbie’s Nursery Rhymes while sitting in my low, chrome-plated stroller parked in the middle of the living room. The lap-sized book had a caramel brown cover and was filled with sepia-toned illustrations of girls in bonnets and dresses with aprons and boys clad in straw hats and patched denim. Folksy shoeless children gently frolicked in the fields of the open countryside among large-print homespun word salad, as though Anne Shirley and Huckleberry Finn were plucked from literature to drop some obtuse half-truths on freshly literate pre-schoolers. The rhymes had a Poor Richard’s Almanack flavour, like Benny Franklin dashed off some kid-friendly aphorisms between playing post office and inventing the $100 bill. It was all weather conditions and farm life, with occasional tips on how to be a righteous puritan and some scattered rebukes of carefree youths. Winds and rains complicated outdoor plans, hens and sheep had things harvested from their bodies, and it was puddings a’plenty for chore-doers but not naughty mitten-losing kittens. Little Bo-Peep and Little Boy Blue were shown to be woeful failures in their vocations at their tender ages, with no indication of the rhymes’ stance on an underage, unpaid workforce. Lazy Mary stayed in bed, while the Mary quite contrary grew an aesthetic garden and an entirely different Mary was stalked by one of Bo-Peep’s wayward lambs. When remembering nursery rhymes, my memory occasionally gets transposed with my reading of the Dean’s Mother Goose Book of Rhymes, its brightly coloured illustrations juxtaposed with subtly grim rhymes of children living in an indeterminate, but likely Victorian-adjacent era being subjected to life’s harshest tribulations — they tumbled down hills and got whipped by old women in shoe houses, babies were kept in treetops and knocked to the ground — cradle and all — by gale force winds, and spiders terrorized young girls just trying to eat their gruel in peace. Why had I learnt my ABCs to immediately be shown the myriad ways tragedy could befall small youths in pre-industrialized times?

For some special occasion that predates my recorded memory, I received a customized copy of My Adventure in Mother Goose Land, a novelty piece of literature that set a mystery/adventure story within an enchanted nursery rhyme land. I don’t know why it was chosen for me, whether I’d demonstrated an affection for half-assed rhyme structure and bite-sized life lessons shrouded in Britishisms, or it was simply a cute ’n’ easy gift idea. If somebody was trying to set me up to become some sort of nursery rhyme scholar, their dreams were dashed the moment I got my chubby paws on the TV Guide and could parse the dense listings. However, this particular book was prescient of my gift for finding lost items and perhaps instilled in me a fondness for amateur private investigators.

Back before the Internet and even infomercials, people had to order crap from ads in the back of magazines, trashy gossip rags, or comics. Kids could send away for sea monkeys and x-ray glasses, insecure girls could send away for enhanced brassieres, and insecure boys could send away for bodybuilding tips from Charles Atlas. The back pages of periodicals were chock-full of illusions for the delusional fool willing to clip the printed form and waste a perfectly good stamp and possibly money order. Occasionally, there’d be an advert for something moderately sensible or reasonably fun. The Me-Books Publishing Company, Inc., launched circa 1975, peddled the concept of personalized books for children. “Your child could be a star in a storybook!” they claimed. For the low, low cost of $1 (limited offer, reg. $3), they’d sprinkle your child’s name, address, birthday, best friend, and pet through one of several exciting, teacher-approved stories. It got the Good Housekeeping stamp of approval, so how bad could it be? Your child won’t be using any of those personal details to generate passwords for, like, twenty years anyway.

The story of My Adventure in Mother Goose Land is simple: a thing is missing in Mother Goose Land and it’s up to a random child to find it. What happened was Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard was starkers, with not even a wee bone for her poor dog. Rather than address the systemic issues that led to an old woman and her faithful canine companion to go destitute and hungry, the concern is downplayed and it’s presumed that a missing bone deserves key focus. Mother Goose uses her resources to travel to [my hometown] to recruit [me] and [my friend(s)] to help locate the objet du chomping. Being a small child desperate to please authority, [my character] is eager to join the wild goose hunt for a dog’s lost treat. Before we can ask what’s so special about this particular calcified remnant that the lady whose realm it is can’t just replace it with a fresh one with arguably more nutritional value, we’re swept off to Mother Goose Land. Upon landing, [my character] suggests interrogating all the residents and snooping around their gardens. M.G. loves that idea, the nosey old biddy. And so, the team accosts random nursery rhyme characters for questioning — the sinister Peter Pumpkin-eater with the wife he imprisoned within a giant pumpkin shell, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Sprat who seemed well-matched in their dietary restrictions, Quite Contrary Mary and her trippy garden, the Travelling Pieman trying to stop Simple Simon from mooching free pie samples like it’s Saturday at Costco, Little Miss Muffet getting terrorized by a posh gentleman spider in a top hat, Old King Cole whooping it up merrily at his grand soiree, and Little Boy Blue snoozing between his gigs as junior shepherd and boogie-woogie bugler. Nobody’s seen anything or knows about any bones — of if they had, they’re following the cardinal-yet-unwritten rhyme “snitches get stitches.” The team searches hither and yon ’til, lo and behold, the bone — or, rather, a bone — is located in the very last place we look. Spoiler alert: it’s a haystack. Disappointingly, [my character] does not offer the suggestion that the dog probably put it there in the first place and that Puppy Hubbard should’ve been included in the search party, or that he likely would’ve found it on his routine walk and all this hassle could’ve been spared. In the end, Old Mother Hubbard is relieved and the dog gnaws happily on its prized possession. Mother Goose is pleased with the outcome, but now eager to get these mortal strangers off her property. She returns [my character] and [my friends] to [my hometown], and flies off into the darkening night sky never to return.

The book itself is a lightweight affair, a fifteen-page storybook that is 80 percent groovy illustrations of Mother Goose Land’s Flower Power-lite aesthetics and 20 percent custom story fitted around the artwork in 12 pt. Courier. The whimsically-illustrated characters and their respective rhymes do the heavy lifting in this booklet. It might actually serve as a cute little intro to nursery rhymes without the vague personal details sprinkled through the text. Although the lady trapped in a pumpkin and the flowers with human faces are a trifle disconcerting — par for the course in any nursery rhyme collection — the overall design and late springtime sunset colour scheme was a refreshing sight in a world done up in shades of hot dog toppings. According to a vintage advert for Me-Books Publishing, Inc., a deluxe edition of book featured 50% more story and came bound in a durable, wipe clean cover. Since I was likely pre-verbal and hadn’t experienced the world beyond Sesame Street and Sha-Na-Na, I didn’t have enough personality traits to fill a haiku, so an expanded story would’ve only served to deliver more creepy poems. Not that the company seemed to ask for much beyond what could fit on a magazine form and they’d already printed my birthstone and full home address. It was a different time. Parents weren’t worried about their children getting doxed and winding up on milk cartons yet.

Obviously, I did not become a leading scholar in nursery rhyme literature. In college, I did write an overly complicated one-act play for children about London Bridge falling down and the bureaucracy involved in reconstruction efforts.

Do I hold onto this book because it has sentimental value? Do I keep it out of vanity? Who doesn’t love seeing their name in print — especially when it’s spelled correctly? Eventually it will become a historical document, not of myself, but for the evolution of novelty customized gift items. My Adventures in Mother Goose Land, and the rest of the “exciting” titles offered by Me-Books Publishing, Inc., did not forge the path to the bespoke, AI-generated-from-mined-personal-data t-shirts promoted on Facebook, but certainly makes an interesting dot on the timeline. Sure, a monogrammed blanket is a timeless classic with heirloom potential, but an adventure storybook purporting a gullible child to possess skills that a notable personality might seek out to exploit someday delivers a quirky delusion that will last a lifetime!

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