Monday, December 24, 2012


As I write this exactly one week after the horrific Newtown shootings, in the midst of the frenetic holiday season, and during the darkest day of the year, it occurred to me that this is a time in which we might all be in need of some soothing.  What better to fit the bill than a lullaby?  Lullabies are meant to put children to sleep and for that reason, both words and music must have a calming effect.  Lullaby songs have appeared across cultures and languages and have been sung down the ages.  Lullabies are also a popular theme for bedtime books.

In my first published book, The First Song Ever Sung, illustrated by Ed Young (and sadly out of print but available from third party sellers on Amazon) a little boy questions all the members of his family as well as the fish in the brook, the birds in the sky, and his pet dog to find out the answer to his question, “What was the first song ever sung?”  Each human or animal provides an answer in terms of something very important to him or her.  In the last verse, the boy’s mother tells him that the first song ever sung was, “a mother’s song, a hush song, a sleep song, a love song”… in other words, a lullaby.  In writing this text, I utilized repetition, which has a lulling effect, and slant rhymes, or words that almost rhyme, to keep it from getting too sing-song-y.  (As a side note, I actually wrote this first as a lullaby to my own son Jonathan.)

In another of my titles, I Love You As Much, illustrated by Henri Sorensen, various mother animals express their love for their little ones, again each one in her unique way:

Said the mother horse to her child,
I love you as much as a warm summer breeze
Said the mother bear to her child,
I love you as much as the forest had trees.

Here the text is in simple couplets, again using repetition and rhyme for a lulling effect.  The last spread pairs a human mother and child with a couplet that reads,

Now sleep child of mine as the stars shine above
I love you as much as a mother can love.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti has created a unique lullaby book called Naamah And The Ark At Night, with fabulous collage illustrations by Holly Meade.  Bartoletti show us Naamah, the wife of Noah, singing gently throughout the night to soothe the human and animal pairs that inhabit the ark.  The form of the book was inspired by an old Arabic poetic structure galled a ghazal. It requires each couplet to end in the same word, preceded by a rhyming word. In Bartoletti’s hands this form creates a tender, hypnotic bedtime song.

For a collection of more traditional lullabies, see Kay Chorao’s The Baby’s Bedtime Book. It contains songs in the folk tradition, such as "Sleep, Baby, Sleep" and "All the Pretty Horses," as well lullabies written by poets such as William Blake, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

For a writing exercise, try identifying the elements of a lullaby and then writing one from the point of view of a human parent, an animal, a fairy tale character, or even an alien on another planet. After all, everyone needs a little soothing now and then.

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