For The Real Dada Mother Goose, Jon Scieszka and Julia Rothman serve up six variations each on six familiar nursery rhymes—36 examples of classics remixed, reimagined, and deconstructed so they become a haiku, encoded messages, and even a book report. For Scieszka, it meant coming full circle with the cheeky nonsense of his iconoclastic classic, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, illustrated by Lane Smith, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. For Rothman, who draws the graphic journalism “Scratch” column for the New York Times with writer Shaina Feinberg, it was an opportunity to work in a new style with a new collaborator. PW spoke with them about the children’s literature equivalent of putting new wine in old bottles—and putting blue boots on geese.
What’s the book’s origin story?
That’s exactly what every kid asks me—this story I actually know. I remember it was seven years ago now, I was at home thinking about what I should work on next, and that it should be fun. I went through my whole library and took out everything I really liked and I ended up with stuff by funny writers and a bunch of nonsense writers and children’s books—Tomi Ungerer, Ogden Nash, S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley. With that was a bunch of artists’ books, Dada books, collections of Zen koans, fairy tales, nursery rhymes. And there was Exercises in Style [by Raymond Queneau]—it’s not completely obscure, but if you try to explain what it is to people who don’t know what it is, it just gets worse.
I really like the idea of nonsense mixed with really ancient writing for kids, and I thought, “What if I did nursery rhymes in lots of different ways?” That’s my favorite kind of writing—doing something and twisting it and going way too far with it.
We sent it to a bunch of publishers. The challenge to them was, “It’s not for a preschool audience. We don’t want to get stuck in nursery rhyme land. I absolutely wanted kids to look at that and say, ‘I can do that too.’ ”
We had a great auction—Steve Malk is my agent, and he’s big on the one-shot auction. [I’m happy that] it landed at Candlewick because Liz [Elizabeth Bicknell] is such a nursery rhyme fan—she’s done the Opie books, and she’s an incredible Anglophile; the place is nursery rhyme central. And I do love the people that Candlewick has published: Mac Barnett, Jon Klassen, Kate DiCamillo, Carson Ellis. These people make beautiful books.
How did you get teamed up with Julia Rothman?
That was just a thing of brilliance. I showed the text to a couple of illustrator friends of mine, they said “Scieszka, this is crazy, I can’t do that, it looks like your brain just exploded.” I’ve always wanted to be really involved with the artists that do my books, ever since I started out with Lane [Smith]. And from the beginning, I knew this had to be a playful thing, because it’s eminently adaptable.
The Dada guys were the first champions of photo montage and manipulating stuff—remixing photos and text—so I was thinking, “What if we had a Dada collage approach, so that the variations were done visually as well as in the text? And the original Blanche Fisher Wright artwork was done early enough that it was copyright free.
I didn’t have anybody in mind. I follow a bunch of collage artists but I didn’t know them. My daughter Casey and her husband are really active in the illustration world and they realized that they knew Julia from Brooklyn and she knows a million people from Women Who Draw [the organization that Rothman co-founded with Wendy MacNaughton].
We made a date and met at a bar in Brooklyn, and I asked Julia if she knew anyone who was good at collage. I remember her saying, “Are you asking me if I can do this?” I said I hadn’t assumed but if she’d like to try it that would be spectacular. Within a couple of days she sent me some ideas for what the “Humpty Dumpty” rhymes could be. And I said that’s it—it’s tweaking the Blanche Fisher Wright art just enough.
The book is co-dedicated to Wright and you pay tribute to her in your afterword. Can you talk about that?
I grew up with her version and read it to my kids and still read it to my grandkids, who are a bit mystified by it—it doesn’t age particularly well. Years ago, I remember looking into her story and there was absolutely nothing. I’m actually working on expanding her Wikipedia entry—I’ve been searching her on genealogy sites and collecting her books. We know a lot more about her, like that she adopted a kid who became the illustrator Gordon Laite. But as we also know of that era, no illustrator got credit. You got the assignment, you did it, and that was it.
All the mischief in the book is attributed to the Dada Geese—a flock of birds who wear blue boots and are a visual running thread through all the rhymes. What was behind the idea for them?
I had the idea that the Dada Geese would be a stand-in for kids—I was thinking one character. The flock is totally a Julia invention that came from our going back and forth. Their little workshop [shown on the book’s first spread] cracks me up. Their boots are great. They’re goofy—they let kids know that we’re not being mean in messing with the art, that this is being playful and honoring it, doing something even more fun.
By the way, here’s something nobody has mentioned in the reviews yet: the changes I made to the rhymes are in blue. If you look at the censored variation [in the “Humpty Dumpty” chapter], the censoring is in blue. That came to me as we were messing around, sending things back and forth to Liz and Julia.
There’s such an array of styles. How did you come up with them?
I had picked a collection of nursery rhymes that were all about the same length so they didn’t go on for too long. [The variations] were whatever came to me—Esperanto could have been any of them. “Simile Excessively” for “Twinkle, Twinkle” was pure, Dada fun style—there could have been 20 or 30 variations on that one. I’m at a point in my career where I love this part of the process, everything is possible—how can we solve this, here’s another tweak we can do.
In addition to Esperanto, Haiku, N+7 (a nonsense language invented by Raymond Queneau’s Oulipo group) and other variations, there are parodies of the kind of drudgery writing expected from kids at school—a book report variation of “Jack Be Nimble,” a pop quiz variation of “Hey, Diddle Diddle.” That has to be rooted in your experience as a teacher, right?
I mined 10 years of elementary school teaching. I used to read hysterical papers like the book report. They [students] know exactly what they’re supposed to write in that formulaic-y way: How did I feel, what will happen next. I just entertained myself to no end—I have a lot of variations.
This book makes such a matched set with The Stinky Cheese Man, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Maybe that was kind of a mental thing—some kind of an arc, although it wasn’t immediately apparent to me.
Great segue. Let’s talk about The Stinky Cheese Man—what are your thoughts about it 30 years on?
I wrote Dada Goose seven or eight years ago—it took all this time to make—but having the publication date be 30 years after the pub date for Stinky is kind of nice. It gives me a great feeling about children’s books in general. There’s so much variety out there—so different from 30 years ago. And kids are still just as funny and playful as they were 30 years ago.
And I feel so honored and lucky to realize now I’ve been able to make a living writing books for kids. That’s crazy. I never would have thought that’s where I was going. Doing the same kind of thing, messing around with the existing stuff, tweaking it, hoping to get kids to laugh and motivating them to be readers, not lecturing them. I love that belly laugh—that is such a reward.
Do you see your role as a self-proclaimed “anarchist”—as seen on your website—meaning or demanding something different than it did 30 years ago?
When I was just trying to sell The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! and The Stinky Cheese Man, being an anarchist within the children’s book business was easy—I was reacting to all the sappy books out there. What’s happened is so funny: a whole generation that grew up on The Stinky Cheese Man is in their mid to late 30s and they’re in charge of stuff now. We’re talking to people at Netflix, and they all loved it—“I read that book every day when I was growing up.” When Lane and I were pitching to publishing houses and Nickelodeon back then, we heard, “This is too weird.”
Children’s books have gotten more meta. Of course, that was the adult fiction I loved [30 years ago]—everything meta, like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon. I thought, “I’m going to write meta fiction like that. And then I started teaching, where I had the revelation that kids are meta. They’re the original Dadaists. Second graders say, “I’ll put a moustache on anything.”
You’ve traveled extensively to bookstores, classrooms, and libraries to promote your books and reading. Do you expect to do that again for this book?
I’m just starting to arrange a couple of things. I’m doing a local event at the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn on October 15. The other big event is for the opening of The Rabbit HOle, the new museum for kids’ books in Kansas City. I’m on the board there. It was started by the people who owned Reading Reptile [Pete Cowdin and Debbie Pettid].
You’ve always been committed to literacy and helping connect your books to the classroom. Teachers need allies more than ever these days. How do you think this book could be valuable to them?
I taught elementary school for 10 years in New York, first grade through eighth grade. Mostly I was a second-grade homeroom teacher, which I loved—they’re reading everything, that’s when kids become readers or not. That’s when they become writers and grow their sense of humor.
I had it the easiest because I was in a private school: I had small classes, support from the administration, wonderful co-teachers. It breaks my heart to see teachers getting run out of the business by people who are so uninformed about what teachers do. That's why I was sure to include all the back [explanatory] matter that’s in The Real Dada Mother Goose. I didn’t want teachers to have to go searching for what’s an anagram or what’s military code.
What’s next for you?
I love working with my son-in-law, Steven Weinberg—it’s great to work with younger people. He and I have another project going.
I’ve also got my own take on Aesop’s fables, called Fables for Tough Times. It’s with Penguin. These were written all through the pandemic and there are some dark ones. It’s for a middle school or teenage audience, which is new for me. But I’m drawn to that teenage audience because I think they’re looking for some hard-core, ugly truths—but still funny.
Can you tell us about that first meeting with Jon?
Jon brought the manuscript with him, and he started showing me and telling me ideas. He said, “I’ve done this sort of wordplay deconstruction of Blanche Fisher Wright’s book, and I want something to go with it.” He really wanted to use the art from the book, so that would be deconstructed as well.
When someone has a project and they’re super excited and have a vision that you can see and imagine how it can be—it didn’t take too much convincing. It was sort of out of my comfort zone. I don’t work this way pretty much ever. We agreed I’d try playing with it and see how it went. It was fun.
How did it feel to work with such iconic images?
Of course it’s a super famous book. I recognized it immediately and remember it from my childhood really well.
I made this rule for myself: that everything [for the book’s artwork] would be from the book, there would be no outside collage at all. If there was any kind of pattern needed, I’d take it from the book. If I needed any kind of object, I’d take it from the book. And if I couldn’t find it, then I’d draw it.
Art from the [original] book was pulled out and digitally cut up in Photoshop, and then painted with gouache. I also used a uniball pen on top of gouache, and then collaged.
What’s it like to be a member of the club of Jon Scieszka illustrators? It’s a pretty selective group.
I know he’s a superstar and I love his energy, and it was super exciting to work with him. But it’s not really my world, the picture book community.
I’ve only done three other picture books—they were with Phaidon and they were collaborations with a friend of mine. I know when I talk to other illustrators they say, “That’s incredible, I’ve wanted to work with him forever and it’s such a big deal”—that’s how I know there’s a ‘club.’ ”
How did the collaboration work? Did you run ideas by each other?
It was very collaborative, which is how I like to work. Whether it’s with Shaina on “Scratch” or someone else, it’s natural for me to work closely with somebody. What I love about collaboration is I could take his ideas and add a little of myself, too. It wasn’t just like carrying out a task. When we were doing the postcard variation for “Humpty Dumpty,” I suggested we make the postcard to “Mom and Dad Dumpty” and he said, “Love it. “
He had imagined the Dada Geese [who announce they’re taking over the book in the introduction] as one or two characters, but I sort of let that go and made it a whole flock of geese. He thought maybe they should have some wild color or spots, and I didn’t want them to be that wild, so I put boots on them, and he said “Perfect.” He’s doing so much silliness and wordplay that I felt that the geese should be cool-looking but not steal the show.
That’s how I felt about the illustrations in general, too. There are some picture books where the illustrations are full-bleed and all that, but it wasn’t the right thing for this book. The illustrations just needed to complement.
The team at Candlewick was collaborative, too. We had one initial meeting where we all sat around—this was in person before pandemic times—and went through book page by page; they had ideas, Jon had ideas, and I had ideas. Then I worked with Amy Berniker, the art director, and Jon worked with Elizabeth Bicknell, the editor. For the most part Amy was hands off, and after I did things, she fixed up the typography.
This is a relatively big book—how long did your part take? What were the most challenging aspects?
We met before the pandemic and started working on it, and then during the pandemic there was a period when it was on hold. Then we got back to it and quickly wrapped up. But for a long time it was slowly coming together.
It was like a puzzle: if two nursery rhymes are mashed up [as they are for “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” and “Twinkle, Twinkle”] how do you show that in a picture? How do you show a simile? How do you show an anagram? What if the boy in the illustration is trying to make anagrams out of the stars? I had to match the text, but also match the Mother Goose illustrations with something of my own.
Has this opened up new aesthetic possibilities for you?
I think I get stuck a little bit sometimes, I think the same way, so forcing myself to work in a new medium changed the work a little. But I showed this to a friend and he said, “Of course it looks just like your work, the geese are yours.”
A lot of the time I think illustration is so important and for this book I really felt like the text should be the focus—it was cool to accompany it and not be the star. Sometimes you do a book that’s about the illustration, and this is about both.
I also got to play with typography when I did those chapter openers. I mixed up fonts and messed with them and that was fun to do—I never get to do that.
Your “Scratch” column is notable for its diversity—what was it like to work with images of white-skinned characters wearing old-fashioned clothing?
It definitely came up in the beginning. [The solution] was adding characters when we could that were diverse.
I really like “Boring” [Humpty Dumpty appears surrounded by hand-drawn soldiers of various skin tones and genders] because it was a chance to paint in my own characters and show some people of color. In one of “The Hubbard Variations” I was able to put in a female scientist [who also has darker skin]. Otherwise it really would be all-white characters. I thought about replacing the original characters, but we really wanted to work with characters from the original.
The book is being marketed for ages seven to 10. What do you hope readers will take away from it?
I think it’s for any age—and they’ll find it silly and creative and fun, even if you’re reading it to them. I hope kids will try their own versions, that they’re inspired to think how they can deconstruct something and see how many variations of the thing they can do.
There’s a joint dedication to Blanche Fisher Wright. Why was it important to you both?
Jon made his dedication to her, and I thought, gee, I’m taking her art and working with it and messing with it—I’m probably the one who should be thanking her, so I said, “I’ll add my dedication to yours.” I hope she was a creative, playful person and wouldn’t mind it. And I hope someday somebody does the same to my work, too.
What’s next for you?
I just signed with Candlewick again for a picture book with Shaina based on our “Scratch” column. We’re interviewing 20 people about their professions, and the working title is Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker which I’m psyched about. It will be very similar to “Scratch” in that we’ll talk to real people all over the world about their jobs and use all their real words—only quotes from them. So far we have a wildlife veterinarian, a bagel baker, a flower farmer—jobs we find fascinating that we think kids wouldn’t know about it. We’re looking for diversity in all kinds of ways, in terms of who the people are and where they’re from. There are so many kids’ books that don’t share the range of careers that people can have and the types of people who can have those careers. We want to open people’s eyes to that, and show that everybody has a place where they can do the things they want to do.
The Real Dada Mother Goose: A Treasury of Complete Nonsense by Jon Scieszka, illus. by Julia Rothman. Candlewick, $19.99 Oct. 11 ISBN 978-0-7636-9434-0