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.