Singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant’s conceptual album Leave Your Sleep (2010) featured children’s poetry adapted into music and song. Thanks to a fortuitous meeting with editor Frances Foster and a collaboration with illustrator Barbara McClintock, Leave Your Sleep: A Collection of Classic Children’s Poetry is now a picture book/CD package (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Foster). As Merchant explains in the introduction, “Five years of research and writing went into Leave Your Sleep,” including sifting through archives, searching for long-lost poets, and collaborating with musicians and recording technicians. Merchant spoke with PW about this ambitious and ongoing project for young readers and listeners.
In Leave Your Sleep’s introduction, you explain, “This collection of songs represents the long conversation I had with my daughter during the first six years of her life.” Many readers may not be familiar with these poems from the likes of Nathalia Crane, Charles Causley, Ogden Nash, and Rachel Field. How did you come to find and share these poems with your daughter?
We had fun. We didn’t do all the traditional nursery rhymes; I found some unusual poems for her and did some research into finger plays and jump rope rhymes. I fully took advantage of the fact I was introducing this little person to the culture of children’s lore and verse and oral tradition. And she was such an amazing pupil. She has an incredible memory and she caught on to the rhymes really quickly. She’s almost 10 now, and actually I’m preparing a present for her grandmother, of all these recordings from the time she was a baby forward, reciting nursery rhymes and singing songs, revisiting the research we did together.
Did your daughter have a particular favorite poem?
No, she didn’t. And I adapted so many that didn’t end up in either project – I think there were 50, and we only did 27 in the final project.
Might you release the additional songs as a second project?
I always envisioned this as a three-volume set. And when I took it to Nonesuch [Records] they said, “No, no, no, let’s just put it out once because we don’t think you’ll want to talk about this twice.” Well, here I am talking about it as a children’s book two years later. There’s definitely enough material to do another volume. But it’s so labor-intensive. It was the most time-consuming, difficult, and expensive project I’ve ever done, and I worked with 130 musicians over a year. So I don’t know if I have it in me to do the third volume!
What qualities did you look for in poetry? Did you lean toward poems that demonstrate strong meter, rhyme, eccentric content, or some other notable feature?
If you read poetry for children before 1950, it generally has strong rhyme and meter – it’s very formulaic, which I enjoy. And children love predictability – you know, they like little surprises, but within a predictable format and framework. And what I was looking for was songs that were in some way delightful, whether that was because they were nonsensical and humorous, or intriguing in some way. I was looking for songs that had strong central characters or archetypal characters, like witches and princes and princesses and giants, and dancing bears and circus characters. And I was just looking for appealing, simple language. I love “The King of China’s Daughter” because it is a charming and almost surreal poem; the language is so delicate and beautiful, “with her face like yellow water” and with the image of the skipping rope “made of painted notes of singing-birds.” It’s masterful.
At the end of the book, you include photos of the poets. Did you contact many poets’ families or estates?
Of the poets that I chose, there is no existing biography for about four or five of them because they’re so obscure. In the case of Charles Edward Carryl, I was at a loss to find a photograph. I knew that he’d been a member of the New York Stock Exchange for over 45 years, so we went to look in their archive, and there it was: the photograph.
I also met the great-great-grandson of William Brighty Rands. We went to tea together, and he showed me first editions of his great-great-grandfather’s books, and then he loaned me three photographs – a tintype and two other photographs on paper that I was able to scan.
Robert Graves’s son has written to me and told me how much he loves my interpretation of “Vain and Careless.” His mother, Nancy Nicholson – whose father was the famous illustrator William Nicholson – originally illustrated the collection that became Country Sentiment, and he [Graves’s son] sent me a scan of her drawings of “Vain and Careless.”
But anyway, I’ve had these really wonderful exchanges with some of the children and the grandchildren of the poets, and executors, and some of the historical societies that hold original manuscripts.
This does sound more like a dissertation, or a career, than a single album or project. Why did you pursue so many details that you could not include?
It’s fascinating, and not typical work for most pop artists! But definitely perfect for me, because I’m such a geek. I felt like Nancy Drew, looking for the photographs of Carryl at the Stock Exchange – I felt like, Ah! Eureka! I have found you at last!
And just the other day I found that his father-in-law, whose name was Apollos Wetmore, was an industrialist and big investor in Manhattan. He did work as a philanthropist and he built the New York Juvenile Asylum, up on 174th Street. I went into the New-York Historical Society to find out more about that. There were about 1,500 street children living in this place – it wasn’t an orphanage, but they were neglected children, and many of them were the ones who were put on the Orphan Trains out west. So at the same time Wetmore’s grandchild was having an idyllic childhood with a father who’s devoted to him and writing books for him, their family was taking an interest in street children. I love that kind of historical perspective.
After several missed communications, editor Frances Foster contacted your publicist to propose turning your album into a picture book. She recommended Barbara McClintock as the illustrator. What happened to get the print version of the project under way?
Frances tried to get hold of me for about six months, and when we finally spoke, she said, “I’m interested in a children’s book.” I said, “Well, so am I,” because I had originally wanted to illustrate it myself and self-publish it. Then she said, “I’m considering Barbara McClintock,” and was about to tell me who she was. I said, “You might as well tell me God wants to illustrate my book, because I have probably eight of her books. I love Barbara McClintock and I think the work that she is doing is the perfect parallel for this project.” She is so respectful of craft and she has reinterpreted older books and traditional stories. So I liked the suggestion!
[In Leave Your Sleep,] her anthropomorphic work is so powerful. Just the eye of her elephant [for John Godfrey Saxe’s “The Blind Men and the Elephant’] is so human, and all the little mice in procession in [Robert Louis Stevenson’s] “The Land of Nod,” the dog in [John Yeoman’s] “Old Mother Hubbard & Her Dog Revisited” – there’s just a delightful treatment of all the animals.
Did you work with McClintock in person or remotely?
Barbara and I worked together quite a bit, because I had lived with the project for, at that point, seven years and I had a very clear vision in my mind of specific things – like [Carryl’s] “The Sleepy Giant” needed to be a woman, and she needed to be of the Elizabethan era, and I was adamant that Ebenezer Bleezer [of Jack Prelutsky’s “Bleezer’s Ice Cream”] was African-American and it was the 1950s. I said, just imagine an ice-cream parlor in New Orleans in 1954. In the book, Ebenezer Bleezer looks a lot like Louis Armstrong.
And Barbara and I just spent a whole day in Midtown West, P.S. 212, doing presentations with kids. The children’s enthusiasm is infectious. They have so many comments and questions and observations. Barbara brought some of her preparatory sketches and ink and paper and watercolors; I had a couple of guitar players and we were singing the songs with the kids.
You have worked with New York City public school children in kindergarten through fifth grade, including an interactive performance with children at the 92nd Street Y. Which poets and songs get the strongest responses from child audiences, and why?
Children love Edward Lear, and they find Nathalia Crane extremely fascinating. I’ve done probably a dozen visits to schools already for this project, and I bring a lot of photographs of Nathalia from the Brooklyn Public Library and the Smithsonian and other sources. I explain to them that this little girl had the notoriety in her day that someone like Justin Bieber would have, and all on the strength of her clever poetry. She won a scholarship to the Brooklyn Girls’ Seminary School, she eventually won a scholarship to Barnard, she went to Europe – and this was a very poor girl from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. They find it amazing that this girl was published and on the strength of her writing was able to have an Ivy League education. She started writing poetry when she was nine and she published the first time when she was 11.
One of the children in the second grade, after I showed his class photographs of Nathalia Crane, asked, “Did the stock market crash while she was a little girl?” And I thought this was amazing, that he thought about how she came of age during the Great Depression. And then he said, “My father’s in finance.”
What activities do you use to blend the music, poetry, and visual material?
In one of the classes, I asked them to pretend we were conducting “The Land of Nod,” and we identified the different instruments in the orchestra, then we talked about the different families of instruments. None of them could identify the harp – they thought it was a guitar – but then I showed them a photograph of the harp and showed them how the harp was played with my hands, and explained that the conductor is there to remind everyone to stay in time.
Another poem we’ve found great for discussion is “The Six Blind Men and the Elephant,” talking about how you can never understand anything in its entirety until you see many aspects of it. I shut my eyes and reached out and felt a little boy’s head in front of me, and I said, “If this was all I knew about little boys, I would think they were pretty hairy!” Older children reading the poem asked me, “What is a ‘theologian’?” and when I said a theologian studies religion, they wanted to talk about how God is something you can’t see. So the conversation turned into this really deep water. All poems can be taken on many different levels, and with children you can go as deep as you want.
Eight poems sung on the original album are not reproduced in the picture book. Did you choose not to include these based on length, content, or children’s tastes?
We left out some of the weightier poems, like the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child.” [One poem that is in the book, Laurence Alma-Tadema’s] “If No One Ever Marries Me” can be interpreted as being sad, but I think that’s an interpretation older people project on the poem. Younger people see it as an adventure, to go live in a cottage and have all those animals. But I had to be careful when I played that song to some of my unmarried female friends who didn’t have any children, because it would make them cry.
Yet, as you say, children interpret the poems based on their own experiences. What other examples come to mind as challenging poems?
The little boy waiting for the sailor to come back to the quay [in Charles Causley’s “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience”] can be about the drum, the parakeet, and the fez, or it can be about the loss of his innocence, because he discovers war as he is waiting for the sailor to come home. Charles Causley, who wrote that poem, didn’t write specifically for children or adults. He just wrote poems, and they can be appreciated by anyone who wants to appreciate them.
That’s how I felt about revisiting all this poetry and recovering poetry allegedly for children, because I found so much beauty and intriguing subject matter and imagery and inspiration in these poems. You can study the history of children’s literature, you can study the structuring of poetry, you can look into the biographies of the poets and the periods they lived in. It’s multisensory, it’s multidisciplinary.
Leave Your Sleep, as an album, reached all-ages listeners, including the adult audience you already have. With the book, are you blurring the boundaries between adults’ and children’s media?
It’s a really funny process, because I always knew I was making a children’s record, or at least I thought I was making a children’s record, even when my record company said I was making a record for adults. I feel like the children’s picture book version is the fully realized version of it because it’s taken away the trappings of it being an album for adults.
Do you anticipate this changing your career as a musician, especially as you move from your concert performances to classroom instruction and back?
As a popular music artist, there’s a certain shelf life, and for women I think it’s even shorter, if you want to do it in a dignified fashion. [laughs] I’d like to remain in music, but I’m more interested in getting involved in arts and education as the years go by. I spent five years on the New York State Council on the Arts, and I watched our state’s budget slashed from $55 million to $32 million in the course of the first two years I was with the agency. I would look at these amazing grant proposals from schools, and be so frustrated that we couldn’t fully fund them. There were so many people with wonderful ideas, with creative ideas to bring to children, and they couldn’t be implemented. So that’s the direction I’d like to go. And I think this project is a big step in that direction.
Leave Your Sleep by Natalie Merchant, illus. by Barbara McClintock. FSG/Foster, $24.99 Nov. ISBN 978-0-374-34368-2