My Little Love-One, What Shall I Sing:
Looking at Lullabies

Phyl­lis: Win­ter in the north is made of longer and longer nights. What bet­ter time to think about lul­la­bies, those songs we sing to our babies to help them sleep? Research has shown how sim­i­lar lul­la­bies are all around the world in the sounds and rhythms they use to soothe babies. So we thought we’d take a trip with some of those lul­la­by books, and a few more besides.

Lullaby for a (Black) Mother by Langston Hughes and Sean QuallsLul­la­by for a (Black) Moth­er by Langston Hugh­es is a poem from his 1932 col­lec­tion The Dream Keep­er and Oth­er Poems. Pub­lished as a pic­ture book in 2014 and illus­trat­ed by Sean Qualls, the book is a cel­e­bra­tion of love between a black moth­er and her baby. A note about the poet tells us that Hugh­es was inspired by music, and the words of this lul­la­by sing them­selves off the pages.

My lit­tle dark baby,
My lit­tle earth-thing,
My lit­tle love-one,
What shall I sing
For your lullaby?
A neck­lace of stars
Wind­ing the night.

Like the words, the illus­tra­tions flow across the page, show­ing the love between moth­er and child that car­ries them beyond the city into the sky of moon and stars and clouds and sun, then home again to a now-sleep­ing child held close in a mother’s arms. Beau­ti­ful­ly evoca­tive and satisfying.

Lullaby for a (Black) Mother, Sean Qualls
illus­tra­tion from Lul­la­by for a (Black) Moth­er, writ­ten by Langston Hughes, 
illus­trat­ed by Sean Qualls (copy­right Sean Qualls)

Jack­ie: I love the imagery. I had to lis­ten to this lul­la­by as a song, instead of read­ing the book. And, though I’m sure the illus­tra­tions are won­der­ful, I did not miss them because the imagery — “neck­lace of stars” and “bright dia­mond moon” — are so evoca­tive. And the love in this lul­la­by is present in every syl­la­ble, or note.

Hush!Phyl­lis: Min­fong Ho’s won­der­ful rhythm rep­e­ti­tion in Hush! (pic­tures by Hol­ly Meade)  implores the world to keep qui­et around a baby sleep­ing curled in a ham­mock.  The sto­ry begins,

Who’s that weeping
In the wind?
“Wee-wee, Wee-wee,”
A small mosquito.

Mos­qui­to, mosquito
don’t come weeping.
Can’t you see that
Baby’s sleep­ing?
Mos­qui­to, mosquito,
don’t you cry,
My baby’s sleeping
right near­by.

From weep­ing mos­qui­to to peep­ing long-tailed lizard to creep­ing cat to squeak­ing fat gray mouse to leap­ing green frog to snif­fling pig to beep­ing duck to swing­ing mon­key to sweep­ing water buf­fa­lo to shriek­ing ele­phant, the moth­er qui­ets the whole world around her baby, com­plete with the sounds each ani­mal makes, until every­one is asleep, even the moth­er. The last page turn reveals — a smil­ing baby wide awake. I love the pat­tern, the rhythm, the sounds of this sto­ry and could read it aloud again and again.

Jack­ie: I agree. The rhythm of the lan­guage is so sat­is­fy­ing. I wish I had a child to share this book with! I also loved the pat­tern of the page turns. A ques­tion is asked, and we have to turn the page to get the answer. Each page turn is a gift to be opened.

Phyl­lis, you and I often talk about verbs. This book sub­tly intro­duces a new verb with each new ani­mal. The frog “leaps.” The musk ok “sweeps” the hay. The mon­key “swings.” And each ani­mal gets its own won­der­ful sound — “Hoom Praaa,” for the ele­phant, “Jiah, jiah,” for the mon­key. That makes me want to turn the pages too.  Such a sat­is­fy­ing book.

GOodnight, Goodnight, Construction SitePhyl­lis: Not all bed­time books are soft and sooth­ing. What about when rough and tough machines are done for the day? Good­night, Good­night, Con­struc­tion Site by Sher­ry Duskey Rinker and Tom Licht­en­held shows us how big machines wrap up their day. Crane Truck swings one last beam into the sky, folds up his boom, and tucks in nice and tight. Cement Truck pours one last load before a bath and bed­time. Dump Truck spills a final load and falls asleep in one of my favorite illus­tra­tions that incor­po­rates the Zzzz’s of his snor­ing into the skele­tal beams of a build­ing. Bull­doz­er and Exca­va­tor, too, fin­ish their work and fall asleep. If I have one quib­ble with this book, it’s that all the machines are male. Where are the girl dump trucks or cement mix­ers tired after a hard day’s work, set­tling down to sleep? The book itself works beau­ti­ful­ly as a rhyming night­time sto­ry, but if I were to read it out loud, I might do my own edi­to­r­i­al mix­ing of pro­nouns and give some of the machines a gen­der change.

illustration from Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site
illus­tra­tion from Good­night, Good­night, Con­struc­tion Site, writ­ten by Sher­ry Dusky Rinker,
illus­trat­ed by Tom Licht­en­held (copy­right Tom Lichtenheld)

Jack­ie: I agree, I’d love to see a girl dump truck, or exca­va­tor. I do love the fea­tures on the trucks, the arrange­ment of head­lights and grills that sug­gest a face. And the crane sleep­ing with a ted­dy bear is so amus­ing, as is the blan­ket on top of the cement truck.

I guess, when read­ing with kids we could imag­ine oth­er con­struc­tion machines that might be the girls, we can amend the text in our own dis­cus­sions. But I won­der — if this book were being writ­ten right now, would it be writ­ten to include girls?

Goodnight MoonPhyl­lis: Good­night Moon by Mar­garet Wise Brown with pic­tures by Clement Hurd is the clas­sic bed­time book of all bed­time books. When my first child was lit­tle I tried to estab­lish a bed­time rit­u­al by read­ing Good­night Moon right before tuck­ing her in. She caught on quick­ly that the book meant bed­time and rebelled. “No moon,” she insist­ed, “no moon.” Despite my mis­guid­ed inten­tions, she came to love the book and searched each spread for the lit­tle mouse as the pic­tured bed­room dark­ens and the child bun­ny says good­night to every­thing in the room and beyond, includ­ing a bowl of mush, an old lady whis­per­ing hush, nobody, stars, air, and nois­es every­where. A 2014 edi­to­r­i­al in the New York Times by Aimee Ben­der looks at the bril­liance Brown brought to this seem­ing­ly sim­ple rit­u­al of say­ing goodnight.

illustration from Goodnight Moon
illus­tra­tion from Good­night Moon, writ­ten by Mar­garet Wise Brown,
illus­trat­ed by Clement Hurd (copy­right Clement Hurd)

Jack­ie: Even peo­ple who don’t read many children’s books know this book. It’s a cul­tur­al icon. And who doesn’t love the old lady and the hush, and the bowl full of mush?

Little You by Richard Van Camp and Julie FlettPhyl­lis:  Lit­tle You, by Richard van Camp, illus­trat­ed by Julie Flett, while not specif­i­cal­ly a bed­time book, is a love­ly cel­e­bra­tion of a baby in few words and bril­liant illus­tra­tions.  The book begins,

Lit­tle you
lit­tle wonder

Lit­tle wish
Gen­tle thunder

Each two lines occu­pies the left-hand, white page of a dou­ble-page spread in this board book with a pic­ture in rich col­ors on the left-hand of the spread, and each pic­ture includes at least one thing red — the sun, a shirt, a dress, stock­ings, a flower, fins on fish, a bird’s breast, the design on a blan­ket wrapped around the baby and par­ents. Julie Flett is a Cree-Métis Cana­di­an author; her books speak to all chil­dren but espe­cial­ly indige­nous chil­dren, their lives and their lan­guage. I have loved Flett’s work ever since I dis­cov­ered it, whether with her own writ­ing or with oth­ers’ words. Every time I find one of her books, I buy it, savor it for a bit, then pass it on to a child.

illus­tra­tions from Lit­tle You, writ­ten by Richard Van Camp,
illus­trat­ed by Julie Flett (copy­right Julie Flett)

Jack­ie: This is a gor­geous book in both lan­guage and visu­al art. I also admire Julie Flett’s work. And these few-word rhymes are per­fect! “You are mighty. /You are small.” This is such a great pair­ing and any­one who has ever been in a room with a baby knows that this is true. Babies are small but mighty in their impact, mighty in the emo­tions they call forth. Or this: “You are life / and breath adored. / You are us / and so much more.”  I would love to read this to a child. What a won­der­ful mes­sage to fall asleep with.

I can also imag­ine using it in a writ­ing class with old­er stu­dents to talk about poet­ry. In fact, all these books make me want to do a writ­ing exer­cise and try to write a lul­la­by. Lul­la­bies involve rhythm and sound, imagery, emotion.

Phyl­lis: In the BBC arti­cle about lul­la­bies a pro­fes­sor of child psy­chol­o­gy describes how babies often respond to lul­la­bies with coos and ges­tures in the same beat as the singing. “Baby and moth­er ‘get in the groove,’” he says, “like jazz musi­cians impro­vis­ing.” And what bet­ter time to make sweet music with your baby or lit­tle one than these snowy, star­ry nights?

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