Steal not this book

Illustrations by Maurice Sendak

I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book.
Edited by Iona & Peter Opie.
Illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1992)
Walker Books 2000 (1947).

‘I saw Esau sittin’ on a seesaw,
Esau he saw I…’

I was brought up with this version of the tongue-twister, which doubtless continued though I have no memory now of how it ended; I was much more enamoured of the doggerel which went “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” The version recorded by Peter and Iona Opie was very different (“I saw Esau kissing Kate, | The fact is we all three saw; | For I saw him, | And he saw me, | And she saw I saw Esau.”) though the helpful endnotes admit that the first half of the shortened version I knew is often all that’s recited.

But this process of looking for familiar rhymes and ditties is one of the first things the new reader is likely to do; the second is to admire and rejoice in the visuals added to virtually every page. Originally published during the years of postwar rationing, I Saw Esau was reissued in 1992 with coloured illustrations by the redoubtable Maurice Sendak, making this probably the most heartwarming pocket book of “traditional rhymes of youth” (as the original subtitle informs us) I’ve had the fortune to see and now own.

The 170 rhymes contained here are sequestered into short sections, and the best I can do to give you a flavour is to open pages at random and quote what I see. From a section headed Lamentations comes this: “Latin is a dead tongue, | Dead as dead can be. | First it killed the Romans — | Now it’s killing me.” From Narratives I pluck this drama:

The rain it raineth all around
Upon the just and unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just because
The unjust stole the just’s umbrella.

And under Characters I spot this: “Patience is a virtue, | Virtue is a grace; | And Grace is a little girl | Who doesn’t wash her face.”

In the 1992 Introduction Iona Opie tells us that this was the first book she and her late husband Peter (he’d died in 1982) had produced together from traditional lore they’d collected — aptly enough at the time their son James was two years old — and she gave due credit to Sendak’s decorations for giving the Walker Books edition “new strength and an extra dimension”. As she adds, “The best antidote to the anxieties and disasters of life is laughter;” and there’s that aplenty in this generously provisioned volume.¹

Let me end with a spell, or rather a curse, designed to protect a favourite book (such as this one):

Who folds a leaf down,
The devil toast brown;
Who makes mark or blot,
The devil toast hot;
Who steals this book
The devil shall cook.

You have been warned.


¹ Iona Opie died four years ago, in October 2017, aged 94.

37 thoughts on “Steal not this book

  1. In the playground at school in 1970s Oldham, we used to sometimes choose someone to do something with this rhyme, but ours went “I saw Esau sitting on a seesaw, Esau he saw me”, with a finger point on each syllable. It made a change from ip dip my blue ship.

    I love Maurice Sendak. His illustrations decorated a fair proportion of my childhood.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s the expressions Sendak gives his characters as much as the compositions, coloration, and so on. My favourite book of his is still In the Night Kitchen.

      The ending I quote — “Esau he saw I” — I’ve not noticed anywhere else. Possibly it’s an attempt at a seeming palindromic version (“I saw Esau … Esau he saw I”) or perhaps it’s because growing up in Bristol I’d picked up a West Country variation: there was a common dialect saying then which went “Don’t tell I, tell ‘e!”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, precisely that, Chris. They are so human. I don’t know In the Night Kitchen, I’ll have to look that out. My Sendak talisman is Sarah’s Room.

    I like both your palindrome and West Country propositions for why your version of I Saw Esau is different.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. His voice made me cringe. I had to stop watching. And that is one of my favourite Maurice Sendak stories. But I bought so many Walker books when my daughter was small. Mainly for myself. I loved the Janet and Allan Ahlberg Red Nose Readers. ‘There was once a pig, who grew so fat, he couldn’t bend…’

          Liked by 2 people

            1. The illustrations of the classic Ahlberg husband-and-wife team are for me a great nostalgia fest, despite being of a slightly older generation than mine—blimps, coal stores, demobbed soldiers, nappies on the clothes-horse by the kitchen range or fireplace, the postman on his bike—it’s all a gentle portrait of a life now fading from the collective memory, and I wonder if it still appeals to the new generation just now approaching school age. Maybe they might appear as variations on fairytales, something from the Olden Days?

              Liked by 1 person

            2. My daughter just loved them uncritically and that was thirty years ago. Some things never age. I should add her favourite childhood book was Alice in Wonderland. She can still quote passages from it.

              Liked by 1 person

  3. My daughter was 3 when the 1992 version was published, and she loved listening to these silly rhymes at bedtime. Her favorite was “I one my mother, I two my mother …” I can’t imagine this book, or the rhymes, without Sendak’s illustrations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a real treat, Karen. Indicating regional variations is what the Opies were good at, certainly with their classic The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, and this encourages me to revisit other titles of theirs.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Cultural capital is changing so quickly as new traditions are created and take hold, ousting and supplanting what came before. I don’t feel any certainty any more in trying to decide what is worthy and what is valueless.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the illustrations, and what a delightful sounding book. I love the curse for dog-earers (is that a word?), scribblers and book pinchers. I wish I had put that in some of mine which were ‘borrowed’ but never came back 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder how many bibliophiles have made this curse into a bookplate to stick into their much-loved titles? I only lately learned the lessons of ‘Never a borrower nor a lender be’ — I can’t bear either the guilt of neglecting to return a lent book when I’ve lost touch with the lender nor the distress of losing a loved title to someone who’s ‘forgotten’ I wanted it back in the same condition.

      And if ‘dog-eared’ is a phrase then I’m pretty certain ‘dog-earer’ would be one too! A curse on them, and scribblers and pinchers, we hates ’em forever… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for this gem of a book, Chris. I wasn’t aware of its existence but I absolutely love the Opies’ The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren which is a fascinating mine of information. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. It lists by category playground games, chants, doggerel, taunts, and the like–all passed on from child to child rather than from parents or teachers–gathered from all around Britain and from a sample in the U.S. The interesting thing is that many of them are ancient, dating back centuries, but every generation of children thinks that they invented them. One I remember from that book: “Adam and Eve and Pinch Me/Went to the river to bathe/Adam and Eve were drowned/Who do you think was saved?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That “Adam and Eve and Pinch Me” riddle-joke is one I remember too, Josna, and one I *nearly* got caught out when I first heard it. (I got pinched anyway, because I *nearly* fell for it.) In a post called ‘Touchstones’ — it’s the link I mention in the endnote: https://wp.me/p2oNj1-2xW — I listed the several publications, including Lore and Language, Iona and Peter were known for and which I had copies of; but this wasn’t one of them as I wasn’t then aware of it, so I’m glad I have it now. I think you’d like it, especially with the Sendak illustrations!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks so much for the link to your Touchstones tribute, Chris. I had missed it when you first wrote it (as I have missed many others which I hope to return to one day). Of course you knew Lore and Language–much better than I do!
        And yes, I think I’m going to order a copy of this one.
        Sorry you got pinched anyway. Schoolchildren are nasty!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s a particular delight, this particular title, so I hope you enjoy it. It’s odd, though, how we remember the slights we had as kids, even if the smarts have left no physical traces.

          Liked by 1 person

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