Saturday, October 14

Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls

poems selected by William Cole
illustrated by Tomi Ungerer
World Publishing 1964

Here's a little time bomb of a memory, lodged deep in my brain, springing forth like a cheerful bird on a breezy cool day when I'm lollygagging:

Nothing to do?
Nothing to do?

Put some mustard in your shoe...

For years I was certain that Shel Silverstein penned the line (and the rest of the poem to go with it) but was unable to locate it in all the usual places (Where the Sidewalk Ends, Falling Up, &c.) Then while researching various poetry collections I stumbled onto this title and the title alone seemed to send up some kind of a warning. Once found (and read) whole dusty corners of my brain came alive. And some interesting questions as well.

Cole, who in his day worked for publishers Viking and Simon and Schuster and the Saturday Review magazine, collected themed books of poetry for children that spanned at least three decades. Collecting humorous verse from throughout the 20th century Cole's books covered everything from the cautionary to the absurd, the sublime to the ribald. Earlier collections in particular contain poems and images that might do more than nudge the edges of political correctness and raise a few eyebrows. The continuation of the poem mentioned above -- credited to a certain Shelly Silverstien -- continues:

Fill your pockets full of soot,
Drive a nail into your foot,
Put some sugar in your hair,

Leave your toys upon the stairs,

Smear some jelly on the latch,
Eat some mud and strike a match,
Draw a picture on the wall
Roll some marbles down the hall
Put some ink in daddy's cap--
Now go upstairs and take a nap.

Having satisfied one itch in the brain I was suddenly met with several more, these in the names of the illustrations. Tomi Ungerer's line drawings have the playful spirit of the book's title... and then some. There is nothing in the poem that accompanies the following illustration to explain the look of the girls face:

And yet, there it is.

Father with a cat-o-nine tails and his little Electra smirking at his attempt to be stearn with her. It puzzled me then, it amuses me now, and it's no wonder this edition is no longer in print.

For Silverstein fans this collection contains the original, slightly different version of "Sarah Sylvia Cynthia Stout" and a poem with some simple instructions to children on how to make a prank phone call.
Not to suggest the book is all perversion and subversion, there are poems in here by A.A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ogden Nash and even Longfellow to round things out.

I look back on reading this as a child and don't feel I was in any way corrupted or had my delicate sensibilities compromised by the outrageousness contained in this collection. In fact, I think we do children a greater disservice today by sanitizing their world to the point where they stop believing we have their best interests at heart. They live in this world with us, and if we have to carve out time to discuss terrorism and famine and war and the dangers of strangers then I think we can trust them to take humorous verse in the spirit which it was once offered -- as a gift, from adults to children, to let them know that it's okay to laugh.


Anonymous said...

It hadn't occurred to me that these poems would be frowned upon today. I read them years ago and found them hilarious, after all children do behave in these ways and often drive adults to distraction. Children, whatever else they are, aren't stupid. If you buy this collection of poems to read to/with them, they will not assume that you are trying to 'do away' with them. After all if that were the case you wouldn't warn them first!

david elzey said...

Carla, looking back I see I might not have been as clear about this as I wished. I'm not the one frowning on these poems, but publishers certainly have by letting this edition slip out of print. Given the current environment, any publisher with a poem instructing kids to make prank calls and driving nails in their feet would have to come with a HUGE disclaimer at the beginning telling kids NOT to do any of the things described within, for legal reasons. Sad, really.

Likewise, libraries have pulled the book from shelves due to lack of interest, but it wouldn't surprise me to find it had been pulled for other reasons (i.e. parental complaints).

For the record, I not only love this collection, I have shared it with my girls and they delight in the humor. One even remarked "I can't believe that they could print things like that without getting in trouble!" Double sad when kids understand the pressures and limitations in our current social climate.

Anonymous said...

Elzey, I don't think Carla was suggesting that you were the one who was frowning on the poems, just that she wasn't aware that anyone would. If she were suggesting that, it doesn't make any sense, because you made it very clear that "sanitizing" everything children read does them a greater disservice than exposing them to playful over-the-top naughtiness ever could. Anyway, I have that book too, and before I saw your blog I had been thinking of that poem. I didn't know who wrote it either, then saw it said "Shelley Silverstein" (two e's) I did a google search to see if Shelley and Shel are the same person, and you confirmed that they are. I was about 99.7 % sure already, but just wanted to confirm. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

What a trip to find this page! When I was in elementary school in the 60's, I found this book in the school library, and quoted it constantly, to my parents' and teachers' dismay.

I haven't thought about it much in 40 years, but now I've written a parody of "Little Orphant Annie", and for some reason I remember the last line of each stanza being "An' the elifants'll get ya', ef you don't watch out!"

Of course, that is not how James Whitcomb Riley wrote it. So I searched my brain for where I could have remembered that from, and the only place I could come up with was my once beloved, "Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls."

As I don't have a copy, I was wondering if you could scan it and let me know if there is a version of that poem in there, that ends with those words. I'd be very grateful.

Your thoughts on the book have really intrigued me. Thanks for the wonderful post!

Yours truly, Brian (a.k.a. Professor Homunculus at )
P.S. - Once I post my poem, I'll send you a link, if you like.

david elzey said...

Alas, professor, I was working from a library copy because I long-ago lost my now-out-of-print hardcover edition. I am in the market for a replacement copy (hardcover, natch) and should the winter fairy grant my wish and send me a scanner this holiday season I'll no doubt scan this and some other choice weirdness from my collection (e.g. Aldus Huxley's picture book).

Veebee said...

Hear, hear, I agree with Professor Homunculus, "what a trip!" I too have found myself over the years thinking "nothing to do, nothing to do," but I could never get past the fifth line of sticking, "a nail into your foot." Thank you for providing the name of the book. As a child, I remember taking the book out of the school library on many occasions, and pouring over the poems and memorizing them. I believe the poem which begins, "Ladles and jellyspoons" is also in that compilation. And if I am not mistaken the books ends with the admonishment, "if this book should chance to roam, box its ears and send it home." I always wished the book's home was mine.

I also lament the sanitization of childhood. I work with children and quote silly poetry to them which they adore. Years ago, I bought a Shel Silverstein book for my nephew, who was "not a reader." Within days, he was quoting to his parents snippets of poems. Being naughty is fun as a child, but thinking about being naughty is more fun. Books like "Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls" allow this to be guilt-free pleasure. In a world which is so much out of children's control, the thought of sending parents into conniptions has a perverse pleasure. There is not the need to act when one can vent through reading and writing. I whole-heartedly agree, we must give these gifts back to our children.

Progga said...

Thanks - I read this book as a child, and loved it! Amazon seems to have used copies for sale, and I plan to get my paws on one immediately!

Anonymous said...

I've had the words ringing in my head "nothing to do nothing to do put some mustard in my shoe" for years, unable to finish the poem. It has haunted me since my childhood in the 70's. Thank you so much for you post, so I now can lay back and rest, knowing the rest of the poem!

jenny said...

Thank you for your article. I too, always thought this was a Silversteen poem until I stumbled across it on line. This remains one of my favorite childhood books, politically correct or not! Thanks for your insights.

T. Twombly said...

Mr. Elzay may wish to broaden his "usual places" for research. I first encountered Shel Silverstein's poem Nothing To Do many years ago as part of a collection of similar work that comprised an article titled Uncle Shelb's ABZs in Playboy magazine. The author supplied the illustrations for the piece as well. Mr. Silverstein was indeed a very talented man.

david elzey said...

i was 7 or 8, or at the most 10 years old, when i first came across the poem in question, and while my adult self knew of mr. silverstien's playboy past it would never have occurred to me to hunt down a source my younger self wouldn't originally been aware of.

during those same years, i would have associated "a boy named sue" with johnny cash and "the unicorn" with the kingston trio -- records from my dad's collection -- and it would be decades before i learned their providence as well.

kira said...

I just needed to post a "thank you" - I was in 5th grade (10 years old)when I found that book of poems and LOVED it. The poems "Nothing To Do" and "Captain Hook" never left my brain & I've hunted on line trying to find their source - as soon as I saw the picture of the book cover, it all came flooding back.

While I can't be 100% sure that the book didn't warp me in some tiny way, I am certain that, to this day, I can NOT hear someone say "there's nothing to do" without automatically saying "put some mustard in your shoe"

sparsey said...

I've had the 'nothing to do' poem running through my head for years as well. I could only remember up to 'put some mustard in your shoe' and it's bugged me for years what the rest of the poem was. What a blast from the past! So cool!!! I must have read this book in elementary school because the other bits everyone talks about have stirred some memories of other silly poems. I think it warped me right to the core reading stuff like this, because I'm still silly to this day! Well, I just try to let the child inside me get out once in awhile. I knew I had a warped sense of humour for some reason, but I didn't think it was because of 'Nothing to Do'. It's so funny because any time anyone says 'there's nothing to do', I always thought, put some mustard in your shoe, but was so frustrated that I couldn't remember the rest. I have never blogged before, but this blog absolutely tickled me pink. Thanks everyone for the blast from the past!

Greg Gower said...

Wow! It looks like "Nothing To Do" has had the same effect on others as it has on me. I'm 52 now and I've had that thing bouncing around in my head for over 40 years now. I've been writing songs since I was in my teens and am currently working on a children's book. Almost everything I have ever written is in a quirky vein. My wife and I were just discussing books from our childhood and how they affected us and I mentioned this poem. It occurred to me, after googling the first lines and finding "Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls", that this book has had more influence on my life than any other. Gotta love the internet!
My wife is a grade school teacher and we are watching education being wrecked by, so-called, reformers and it makes me sad for today's kids.
They're being over-evaluated into hating education and are treated like widgets to make a profit off of. There's no room in todays schools for quirky, off-beat or different.
The future will be an even shade of gray.

Mad Scientist said...

I bought the same book whilst at infant school, the one I always remember goes thus:
Grandpa dropped his glasses once in a pot of dye
And when he put them on again he saw a purple sky
Purple birds were rising up from a purple mill
men were grinding purple cider from a purple mill
Purple Adeline was playing with a purple doll
And little purple dragonflies were crawling up the wall
And at the supper table he got crazy as a loon
From eating purple apple dumplings
With a purple spoon!
I never forgot this one for some reason, its classic!