Rhymes with Oomph and Zoom

I Saw Esau edited by Iona & Peter Opie, illustrated by Maurice SendakMy latest book find is a gem – I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Bookedited by Iona & Peter Opie and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, first published in 1947.

‘They were clearly not rhymes that a grandmother would sing to the grandchild on her knee,’ Iona Opie says in her introduction. ‘They have more oomph and zoom; they pack a punch.’ Well, a grandmother with a taste from the macabre, the grim or the rude might well do, and have a good giggle besides. But there would have to be a lot of explanation, too.*

There are 170 rhymes grouped into themes: Insults, retaliation, teasing and repartee, more insults, lamentation and reproachfulness are just some of them, which gives you a taste. It is ‘a declaration of a child’s brave defiance in the face of daunting odds’. illustration by Maurice Sendak toIona & Peter Opie's I Saw Esau, Walker Books

The book was born in the days of post-war paper rationing. The wonderful illustrations only came with the 1992 edition from Walker Books, and for an illustration-fiend the helping is more than generous. There’s at least one picture on every page and sometimes one for every short verse on the page.

*But there are Notes at the back. Hurray! I love Notes. Especially when the Notes have pictures, too.

I Saw Eau, The Schoolchild;s Pocket Book, I & P Opie & Sendak

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5 thoughts on “Rhymes with Oomph and Zoom

  1. I seem to recall I saw Esau sitting on a seesaw…. Hmm, will have to dig out all three of my Opie books, on the lore and language of schoolchildren, classic fairy tales and — especially — nursery rhymes. And this volume is a must now, especially with the Sendak illustrations!

    • The rhyme I (half) remember was a spoken version which puns on Esau… ‘I saw ‘e saw me’, but it’s not here. Or if it is I haven’t found it yet. The illustrations are great, that sort of tough jauntiness I always associate with Sendak. I think you would love them.

  2. It would certainly be odd if the title of the book was not referenced in the text! Three of the four Opie books I do have (two on nursery rhymes, the other The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren) don’t mention it either. The Online Dictionary of Playground Slang gives the rhyme — of which I only remember the first two lines — as
    I saw Esau, sitting on a see-saw,
    I saw Esau, he saw me.
    I saw Esau, sitting on a see-saw,
    I saw Esau, he saw me.
    I saw Esau, he saw me, and she saw I saw Esau.

    The editorial comment is “while ostensibly a ‘tongue twister’ it is also a trick question. The idea is that you recite the poem then ask the ‘victim’, “How many s’ in that?” And when they come up with a number you should “No! There *are* no s’ in THAT.”

    This therefore is another variant on the Constantinople riddle I learnt as a kid:
    “Constantinople is a very long word;
    if you can’t spell IT you’re the biggest dunce in the world!”

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