Nonsense words and stupid pictures
Published on: 11 February 2020 Author: Huw Aaron
To celebrate The Big Welsh Rhyme Time, author and illustrator Huw Aaron talks about his love of nonsense rhymes.
Bilingual comedian Elis James has a bit in his routine where he translates popular Welsh nursery rhymes into English, with amusingly nonsensical results:
'Two little dogs go to the trees.
New shoes on both feet.
Two little dogs return home.
Having lost one of their shoes.'
'The cow in the cow-shed calling for the calf
And the calf the other side, singing Jim Crow
Jim Crow Crust One Two Four
And the pig sitting prettily on the stool.'
The truth is, in any language, nursery rhymes are at their best when most silly. Weasels popping. Eloping cutlery. Military manoeuvres by indecisive Dukes. Some try to find layers of meaning to these rhymes (let’s not get into ring-a-ring-a-roses), but we all know that their appeal arises from the taste of the words in your mouth and the silliness itself.
I love nonsense rhymes in books, especially when combined with nonsense drawings. As an occasionally absurdist cartoonist, there’s pure fun in watching an illustrator try to draw the undrawably stupid. When I was younger, I loved leafing through a dusty old tome of Edward Lear’s self-illustrated limericks, and his classics 'The Owl and The Pussycat' and 'The Pobble Who Had No Toes' have been variously and wondrously decorated by different illustrators over the years.
Before Meaning or Plot or Character come along, funny sounds and jangling rhythms and bouncing rhyme are a young child’s introduction to the world of Story, and simple, silly pictures their doorway to Art.
As children grow (which they are apt to do), their growing vocabulary and understanding of the world add a new layer of enjoyment to such poems and books. They recognise that rules are being broken - grammatical, etiquette, common sense - and they love it. When combined with silly pictures, their know-it-all serotonin buzz shoots right up to overdose levels.
Pick up a collection of Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss, Edward Gorey, Colin West or Spike Milligan, and enjoy a happy escape from boring old real life and its rules for a bit.
In an industry flooded by ‘issue’ books, worthy moralizing and ‘edutainment’ (*vomits*), I’m all for parents and children embracing together the pure pleasure of utter nonsense. Just beware the Jabberwock.
Welsh children’s literature has its fair share of nonsense poetry
A book of poems by Mihangel Morgan is my favourite example. Creision Hud (Magic Crisps), published by Y Lolfa in 2001 and illustrated by Jo Feldwick contains the poem, ‘Chwlibat’:
'O Chwlibat, Chwlibat, Chwlibat chwip
Ble mae dy dafod a ble mae dy sgip?
Mae fy sgip yn fy nhraed, chwech, wyth, deg
A’m tafod yn llyfu fy ffroenau a’m ceg.'
'O Chwlibat, chwlibat, chwlibat quip
Where is your tongue and where is your skip?
My skip’s in my feet, six, eight, ten
And my tongue’s licking my mouth and nose.'
Dig it out from www.ylolfa.com or www.gwales.com, it deserves wider reading. Gwyn Thomas and Myrddin ap Dafydd also have a healthy handful of nonsense in their childrens poetry collections Anifeilaidd and Cerddi Cyntaf, respectively.
Huw Aaron is, among other booky projects, working on a nonsense picturebook at the moment. It will include plenty of stupid drawings, and the words Noglo-glog, Hwldigrwm and Pengi-Ob. So you know it’s the good stuff.