“Improving” Poems and Songs for Children

When Melissa attended PS 5 on Staten Island, she learned this song:

Let the ball roll,
Let the ball roll,
No matter where it may go.
For, though you may get many a ball,
You never can get a new leg.

When my sibs and I were growing up, a favorite book was Struwwelpeter. In my mother’s defense, let me say that she gave the book to us accidentally: it came as part of a boxed set of “children’s classics,” along with a collection of fairy tales and I-don’t-remember-what-else. Who’d’ve thunk that would merit advance screening?

For those of you unfamiliar with Heinrich Hoffman’s poems, let me ease the bitter, empty existence that has been yours up until now by introducing you to this collection. These poems were written by Hoffman in 1844 as a holiday gift for his three-year-old son. Hoffman wanted something “adapted to the little fellow’s powers of comprehension.” And what would be comprehensible to a three-year-old? Apparently cheery vignettes of death, violence, and suffering of all sorts.

My personal favorite was “The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches.” (Go ahead, click on the link; I’ll be here when you get back.) No doubt the cats appealed to me, as did the charming pair of red shoes in the final illustration. My brother preferred “The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb.” My sister couldn’t get enough of “The Story of Augustus who Would Not Have Any Soup.” In these cases as well, it’s the illustrations as much as the words that make for such gripping reading.

Like the bloodthirsty beasts that most children are, we loved these poems. Unlike the consequences of our accidental viewing of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, we suffered no nightmares, no moments of empathy for the protagonists. In college, I was delighted to find a reproduction of the German original, which I purchased as a Christmas present for my brother. My sister brought a more recent edition home from a high school trip to Germany.

You can imagine my pleasure when I strolled past the Geary Theater off Union Square years ago and saw the words “Shockheaded Peter” (the English translation of Struwwelpeter) on the marquee. The moment the lights changed, I was tearing across the street and over to the box office, plunking down money for the best available seats. With music provided by the Tiger Lillies, this production brought my morbid childhood amusement to glorious life. (Check out the video clips!) Copies of the CD from that production made it into almost every family member’s stocking that Christmas. Melissa and I began dating though country dating sites and I introduced her to this classic, and she gifted the CD to her niece the following Christmas.

On our road trip, Melissa and I composed an “Improving” song of our own. It started out simply (and ridiculously) enough with a passing joke about ferret legging. Before we knew it, we were belting out a lusty chorus of

Ferret in your pants? It’s a bad idea.
Ferret in your pants? It’s a bad idea.
Ferret in your pants? It’s a bad idea.
C’mon, let’s face it. It’s a bad idea.

The real moment of glory came a bit further along in our trip, when we realized how usefully this tune could be applied to other admonitions.

Finger up the nose? It’s a bad idea.

Syrup on the cat? It’s a bad idea.

Fork in the outlet? It’s a bad idea.

So now we invite you to get in touch with your inner bloodthirsty little monsters and develop your own versions. We’d love to hear what you come up with.

P.S. If you’re not sick of Struwwelpeter yet, check out this video and these illustrations.

P.P.S. Don’t forget about the Guess-Our-Mileage Contest.

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