The Secret of Tangletalk!

One fine day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys got up to fight,
Back to back they faced each other.
Drew their swords and shot each other.

This is the oldest known verse of "Tangletalk."

When I chanted this verse as a child in Little Rock, I didn't know that children like me had been chanting this same verse since medieval times, or possibly longer. I was fascinated by the verse when I was younger and have retained an interest in Tangletalk all my life. I asked my husband Don about the poem. He quoted a nearly identical version from his childhood, thousands of miles away in California's San Joaquin Valley. I asked our son. He remembered a similar version from the playgrounds of Santa Barbara, California decades later. Finally, I looked up the verse in that ultimate resource, Iona and Peter Opie's Lore and Language of School Children.

Rooster

The Opies place the poem in a small selection of material that children have chosen to preserve over hundreds of years. On playgrounds, in back yards and vacant lots, one generation of children teaches the next WITHOUT ADULT INTERFERENCE. This is truly child-tested material.

What would it be like, I wondered, to try and stretch this "Tangletalk" concept into a book? The result was Bright and Early Thursday Evening. It was a difficult book to write. Each sentence had to contain a contradiction, paradox, or at least an absurd reversal; but it also had to move forward–and rhyme.

In addition to the difficulty I had in composing the poem, I had another problem – rough content (as in, "Boys rising from the dead, shooting at each other with swords," etc.). Tangletalk, passed on for hundreds of years, beloved by hundreds of generations of children, nearly always contains rough content.

I didn't know that children like me had been chanting this same verse since medieval times

I had faced this problem before with material I expanded or adapted from children's playground lore, notably in Heckedy Peg, a book which is based on a ferocious kidnapping game that I loved as a child. Once again, as with Heckedy Peg, I found myself searching to find the right balance, looking for ways to soften rough content. Unlike the boys in the original "Tangletalk," the girl in Bright and Early Thursday Evening does not rise from the dead; she wakes up DREAMING she is dead.

There is a big difference between rising from the dead, and dreaming one is dead. The only violence is perpetrated by the girl, who eats the potato.

"Let's eat," Said he, "I'm thirsty." So, I gobbled him down in one bite.

But the Potato, like Red Riding Hood's Grandmother after being swallowed whole by the wolf, is rescued unharmed. A mischievous impulse is acted upon, but there are no consequences. This is an example of escaping consequences, with the intention of maintaining a consciousness of innocence in the story.

"Now you've done it," the crocodile cried, "that stranger was my best friend!"
"I didn't do it," I laughed in remorse, "and I'll never do it again."

There are many other fear control factors in Bright and Early Thursday Evening, one of the most important being that the girl, although mildly surprised by her circumstances, plays along, and in fact seems almost to be in control.

This story demonstrates what is possible when the right balance is achieved between challenging the targeted older readers of picture books (third, fourth and fifth graders), while still creating an acceptable picture book.

There was an interesting article written by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, published just before the holidays in 1996. In it he stated: "In children's literature the grown-up wants a comforting image of childhood, or just a familiar name or story; the child wants a boat, a way out, an example of the life beyond. The parent wants to get back, the child wants to get out."


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