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My son is musical. As a newborn, his body would instantly start to relax if I started to sing to him. Now, at 13 months old, he doesn’t calm so easily. But if he hears music, he dances. He laughs when he hears any rhythm. His favorite toys make music. He likes to touch the piano keys.

But I didn’t know any lullabies. For months, I sang him Sunday school songs and hymns, because those are the songs I know by memory. They were good, don’t get me wrong. But I also found myself making up songs as I changed him or made him lunch or helped him clean up his toys. They weren’t so good.

What about lullabies? What are they? How does one learn them?

I did what any reader would do: I searched the library. Here are two great books I found.

Lullabies and Poems for Children (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets)

I absolutely love the size and feel of Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series: each book is the perfect size in my hand, has a ribbon bookmark, and has just the right number of words per page for a poetry book. So I was delighted to see a book dedicated to lullabies and children’s poetry.

Lullabies and Poems for Children is a great poetry collection. I enjoyed the mix of lullaby lyrics, traditional children’s nursery rhymes, and poems for parents. The downside is that it is a mix! It is organized by theme, including “Watching over Me,” “The Voyages of Sleep,” “Stories in Song,” “Nonsense,” “Silly Stories,” and many more categories. Because there was much overlap between the subjects, it seemed to lack any structure. I felt the organization could have been better, with separation between the generic nursery rhymes and more mature, developed poetry.

Also, lullabies are mixed in with other poems; if you are looking for the lullabies to sing to your child, you need to already be familiar with the melodies because this book doesn’t have any music.

Despite the negatives, I love the poems in this volume, and I love the perfect size of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets.

My favorite poems in this volume (there are a lot): “Cradle Song” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson; “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” by Eugene Field; “Oh, My Darling Clementine” (this traditional song is so sad); “Mother and Child” by Hans Christian Andersen; “Song to be Sung by the Father of Infant Female Children” by Ogden Nash; “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath; William Blake’s “The Tyger” and “The Lamb”; and so many more.

My most favorite is “Now That I am Forever With Child” by Audre Lorde: my emotions, so perfectly captured! She writes of her child in the womb and being born. She then ends with this:

From then / I can only distinguish / one thread within running hours / You . . . flowing through selves / toward you. (page 158)

Lullabies: An Illustrated Songbook by the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Because the Everyman’s book didn’t provide musical arrangements, I needed another book to learn the lullabies. Lullabies by the Metropolitan Museum of Art is absolutely beautiful and met my needs. Each of the 37 lullabies is featured on a page with two or three pieces of artwork from the Met. The book has a variety of European lullabies, from English, Scottish, and Welsh tunes to a Yiddish tune and a Czech carol.

One problem is that the book is designed to be a beautiful book: some songs break across a page. In other words, the book is not designed by one who reads music or tries to sit at a piano and play the songs.

A plus is that the music is written in very simple arrangements so anyone able to read music can “plunk” them out on the keyboard; however, the arrangements are so simple that they aren’t exactly beautiful. Even if you don’t read music, however, you are still in luck! You can also buy a CD.

My favorite lullabies: “Dance to Your Daddy”; “All the Pretty Horses”; “Armenian Lullaby”; “Suo Gan (Lullaby)”; “Rocking”; and “Raindrops”. My most favorite was “Skidamarink,” a light-hearted wake-up song.

In the end, however, Lullabies met my needs wonderfully! Every few nights, I’d play through a few lullabies. At the end of the four-week library checkout period, I found myself humming lullabies as I went through my day: that was my purpose. I now feel like I know lullabies.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has also published Go In and Out the Window: An Illustrated Songbook for Young People. It has more songs for children, not limited to lullabies.

Lullabies as Christian Nativities?

I decided to learn lullabies as a part of my continuing “Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History” project. I’m reading Seth Lerer’s book and finding connections to my life. I found Lerer’s discussion of lullabies very interesting:

…the literary evidence we have for lullabies may record not the actual practice of singing children to sleep but rather idealized cradle scenes, especially those of the Virgin and the baby Jesus. In fact, many medieval English lullabies are really Virgin Mary songs, and their survival testifies to the impress of the Nativity on the popular imagination of child-rearing. (Lerer page 70)

So, every time we sing our child to sleep we are, apparently, harkening back to the Nativity of Christ. I have a hard time believing that: singing a baby to sleep is natural, isn’t it?

Do you (or did you) sing your children to sleep? How did you “learn” lullabies? Is humming a baby to sleep natural to you, or is a learned trait? I’m musically inclined, so I wonder if I’m predisposed to singing and humming; I’m very curious about other’s habits.

Reading these poems has gotten me very excited for my upcoming poetry project. Who are your favorite poets? I’ll add them to my “to read” list.

Reviewed on November 14, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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