Allie Esiri has created an anthology of nursery rhymes to offer a rich variety of poems, songs and ditties ancient and modern – all guaranteed to delight children and adults alike

Nursery rhymes are something that we take for granted. Most of us can recall ditties and poems sung or told to us in childhood – sometimes we don’t even realise we remember all the words until we find ourselves passing them on to a small child. Yet many of these works date back centuries, part of an aural tradition, especially across the English-speaking world.

Allie Esiri never takes nursery rhymes for granted – and she’s spent around two years compiling her impressive new anthology A Nursery Rhyme for Every Night of the Year. Beautifully designed, and with charming illustrations by Emily Faccini, it is a treasure house of rhymes. Humpty Dumpty is in there, so too Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but also contributions from contemporary stars of children’s literature such as Julia Donaldson and Michael Rosen. Even that most annoying of all earworms Baby Shark has made the cut.

Esiri is no stranger to taking on big projects – her previous bestselling anthologies have included A Poem for Every Night of the Year and Shakespeare for Every Day of the Year. She has also organised major live poetry events, appeared at august literary festivals and spoken up for poetry as a force for good over many years.

So where do these rhymes from the earliest years of childhood fit in with the wider poetic tradition? “I always think a poem is just a nursery rhyme that has grown up!” she says. But this is not to lessen their import or impact. “Think of Over the hills and far away – GK Chesterton said it is one of the most beautiful lines in all poetry. And Robert Graves said the best of the older nursery rhymes are nearer to poetry than the greater part of The Oxford Book of English Verse,” she says.If you’ve got them inside your head, it’s such a gift: you have got beautiful words to draw on and make you happy.”

“Poems add language and literacy skills – and with nursery rhymes you can add numeracy, as there are some wonderful ones about counting”

Some of the earliest language children hear and repeat comes from rhythm, rhyme and repetition – and Esiri says this is important, both for children’s enjoyment and their formative development. “Poems add language and literacy skills – and with nursery rhymes you can add numeracy, as there are some wonderful ones about counting. There are social, physical and emotional skills that are being offered. Some are purely didactic – ABC rhymes – and others are about manners or behaviour. Then there are games, skipping rhymes for instance.” Of course, there are also the cautionary tales (the baby rocking out of the cradle, the old man bumping his head, the bed bugs biting) but Esiri sees no need to worry. “The meaning reveals itself in later life,” she says. “They also might help children deal imaginatively with violence and danger – rather like fairy tales.”

The research phase of this anthology also meant finding the version to include – aural traditions inevitably mean some fascinating variations in words and phrases, especially as nursery rhymes travelled across the world and were adapted to fit time and place. The origins of many nursery rhymes are lost, but myths and folklore about their meaning proliferate and many have a fascinating back story or current relevance.

"Poems add language and literacy skills – and with nursery rhymes you can add numeracy, as there are some wonderful ones about counting"
Allie Esiri has included useful introductions to every nursery rhyme and ditty. Photo: Joseph Sinclair

This is something Allie Esiri deals with and her informative introductions to every poem are a delight. There Once Was A Man Named Michael Finnegan, an Irish poem first noted down in 1921, even makes an appearance in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, for instance. Or there’s Humpty Dumpty, often believed to be about Richard II’s death at the Battle of Bosworth. But Esiri helpfully points out that equivalents can be found across Europe (in Germany he’s ‘Hümpelken-Pümpelken’) and that the famous egg is even referenced in Taylor Swift’s song ‘The Archer’. Who knew that Jack Be Nimble is based on the popular childhood game of candle-leaping from those far-off days before health and safety was even a thing? Or indeed that Thirty Days Hath September is found in various forms across Europe – and with a French version dating from the 1200s.

“Robert Graves said the best of the older nursery rhymes are nearer to poetry than the greater part of The Oxford Book of English Verse”

A Nursery Rhyme for Every Night of the Year is organised by theme. So March is spring and International Women’s Day, while April is April Fool’s Day and Easter, but also Passover and Ramadan. September is back to school, with educational nursery rhymes, November explores history and remembrance, and December has a festival flavour. Creating an anthology that works is both an art and a science. “It’s like a giant puzzle,” says Esiri. “You look for the variety in different places, classic and modern, male and female, some funny and some moving. It’s also how they sit next to each other” This brings some nice touches. Roses are Red sits oppositeSmriti Halls’ Chilis are Red, while Los Politos Dicen (a classic from Ecuador) and Little Boy Blue make a suitably rustic pairing.

This is a rich bedtime read for young children, but Allie Esiri hopes it will also be a resource that early years and primary teachers tap into. One of the great beauties of nursery rhymes is that they deliver whole stories and complex pictures in few words. But they also introduce children to the sounds of language and the power of repetition and rhythm. “If you are knowing and loving a nursery rhyme, then I do think it demystifies poetry,” says Allie Esiri. “Nursery rhymes are the beginning of our journey with words and our joy in words.”

Allie Esiri: time for rhyme
Emily Faccini’s lovely illustrations set the scene for each night’s nursery rhyme

Allie Esiri’s A Nursery Rhyme for Every Night of the Year is published by Macmillan Children’s (£20, hardback).

Further reading: The amazing. power of subtitles to boost literacy