Children’s Literature

When all the novelists and spinners of elaborate fictions have been read and judged, we shall find that the peasant and the nurse are still unsurpassed as mere narrators. They are the guardians of that treasury of legend which comes to us from the very childhood of nations; they and their tales are the abstract and brief chronicles, not of an age merely, but of the whole race of man. It is theirs to keep alive the great art of telling stories as a thing wholly apart from and independent of the art of writing stories, and to pass on their art to children and to children’s children. They abide in a realm of their own, in blessed isolation from that world of professional authors and their milk and water books “for children.” C. B. TINKER, “In Praise of Nursery Lore,” The Unpopular Review , October December, 1916.

Frontispiece to CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, a Textbook for Teachers and Teacher-Training classes, by Charles Madison Curry and Erle Elsworth Clippinger

My grandfather’s college text from 1923, which he later used to read aloud to his children, and my mother read aloud some of them to her children, and now occasionally to her great-grandchildren.

Tom-Tit-Tot was her favourite, a story which would never pass with most parents today. According to the introduction:
“The next story came from Suffolk, England, and
the original is in the pronounced dialect of
that county. Mr. Jacobs thinks it one of the
best folk tales ever collected. The version
given follows Jacobs in reducing the dialect.
There is enough left, however, to raise the
question of the use of dialect in stories for
children. Some modern versions eliminate the
dialect altogether. It is certain that the
retention of some of the qualities of the
folk-telling makes it more dramatically
effective and appropriate. The original form of
the story may be seen in Hartland’s _English
Fairy and Folk Tales_. Teachers should feel
free to use their judgment as to the best form
in which to tell a story to children.
Name-guessing stories are very common, and may
be “a ‘survival’ of the superstition that to
know a man’s name gives you power over him, for
which reason savages object to tell their
names.” The Grimm story of “Rumpelstiltskin” is
the best known of many variants (No. 178). “Tom
Tit Tot” has a rude vigor and dramatic force
not in the continental versions, and it will be
interesting to compare it with the Grimm tale.
Jacobs suggests that “it may be necessary to
explain to the little ones that Tom Tit can be
referred to only as ‘that,’ because his name is
not known until the end.””

It is long, but here it all is:

Once upon a time there was a woman, and she baked five pies. And when
they came out of the oven, they were that over-baked the crusts were too
hard to eat. So she says to her daughter: “Darter,” says she, “put you
them there pies on the shelf, and leave ’em there a little, and they’ll
come again.”–She meant, you know, the crust would get soft.

But the girl, she says to herself, “Well, if they’ll come again, I’ll
eat ’em now.” And she set to work and ate ’em all, first and last.

Well, come supper-time the woman said, “Go you and get one o’ them there
pies. I dare say they’ve come again now.”

The girl went and she looked, and there was nothing but the dishes. So
back she came and says she, “Noo, they ain’t come again.”

“Not one of ’em?” says the mother.

“Not one of ’em,” says she.

“Well, come again or not come again,” said the woman, “I’ll have one for

“But you can’t if they ain’t come,” said the girl.

“But I can,” says she. “Go you and bring the best of ’em.”

“Best or worst,” says the girl, “I’ve ate ’em all, and you can’t have
one till that’s come again.”

Well, the woman she was done, and she took her spinning to the door to
spin, and as she span she sang:

“My darter ha’ ate five, five pies to-day.
My darter ha’ ate five, five pies to-day.”

The king was coming down the street, and he heard her sing, but what she
sang he couldn’t hear, so he stopped and said, “What was that you were
singing, my good woman?”

The woman was ashamed to let him hear what her daughter had been doing,
so she sang, instead of that:

“My darter ha’ spun five, five skeins to-day.
My darter ha’ spun five, five skeins to-day.”

“Stars o’ mine!” said the king, “I never heard tell of any one that
could do that.”

Then he said, “Look you here, I want a wife, and I’ll marry your
daughter. But look you here,” says he, “eleven months out of the year
she shall have all she likes to eat, and all the gowns she likes to get,
and all the company she likes to keep; but the last month of the year
she’ll have to spin five skeins every day, and if she don’t I shall kill

“All right,” says the woman; for she thought what a grand marriage that
was. And as for the five skeins, when the time came, there’d be plenty
of ways of getting out of it, and likeliest, he’d have forgotten all
about it.

Well, so they were married. And for eleven months the girl had all she
liked to eat and all the gowns she liked to get and all the company she
liked to keep.

But when the time was getting over, she began to think about the skeins
and to wonder if he had ’em in mind. But not one word did he say about
’em, and she thought he’d wholly forgotten ’em.

However, the first day of the last month he takes her to a room she’d
never set eyes on before. There was nothing in it but a spinning-wheel
and a stool. And says he, “Now, my dear, here you’ll be shut in
to-morrow with some victuals and some flax, and if you haven’t spun
five skeins by the night, your head’ll go off.” And away he went about
his business.

Well, she was that frightened, she’d always been such a gatless girl,
that she didn’t so much as know how to spin, and what was she to do
to-morrow with no one to come nigh her to help her? She sat down on a
stool in the kitchen, and law! how she did cry!

However, all of a sudden she heard a sort of a knocking low down on the
door. She upped and oped it, and what should she see but a small little
black thing with a long tail. That looked up at her right curious, and
that said, “What are you a-crying for?”

“What’s that to you?” says she.

“Never you mind,” that said, “but tell me what you’re a-crying for.”

“That won’t do me no good if I do,” says she.

“You don’t know that,” that said, and twirled that’s tail round.

“Well,” says she, “that won’t do no harm, if that don’t do no good,” and
she upped and told about the pies and the skeins and everything.

“This is what I’ll do,” says the little black thing, “I’ll come to your
window every morning and take the flax and bring it spun at night.”

“What’s your pay?” says she.

That looked out of the corner of that’s eyes, and that said, “I’ll give
you three guesses every night to guess my name, and if you haven’t
guessed it before the month’s up you shalt be mine.”

Well, she thought she’d be sure to guess that’s name before the month
was up. “All right,” says she, “I agree.”

“All right,” that says, and law! how that twirled that’s tail.

Well, the next day her husband took her into the room, and there was the
flax and the day’s food.

“Now, there’s the flax,” says he, “and if that ain’t spun up this night,
off goes your head.” And then he went out and locked the door.

He’d hardly gone when there was a knocking against the window. She upped
and she oped it, and there sure enough was the little old thing sitting
on the ledge.

“Where’s the flax?” says he.

“Here it be,” says she. And she gave it to him.

Well, come the evening a knocking came again to the window. She upped
and she oped it, and there was the little old thing with five skeins of
flax on his arm.

“Here it be,” says he, and he gave it to her. “Now, what’s my name?”
says he. “What, is that Bill?” says she. “Noo, that ain’t,” says he, and
he twirled his tail. “Is that Ned?” says she. “Noo, that ain’t,” says
he, and he twirled his tail. “Well, is that Mark?” says she. “Noo, that
ain’t,” says he, and he twirled his tail harder, and away he flew.

Well, when her husband came in, there were the five skeins ready for
him. “I see I shan’t have to kill you to-night, my dear,” says he;
“you’ll have your food and your flax in the morning,” says he, and away
he goes.

Well, every day the flax and the food were brought, and every day that
there little black impet used to come mornings and evenings. And all the
day the girl sat trying to think of names to say to it when it came at
night. But she never hit on the right one. And as it got towards the end
of the month, the impet began to look so maliceful, and that twirled
that’s tail faster and faster each time she gave a guess.

At last it came to the last day but one. The impet came at night along
with the five skeins, and that said, “What, ain’t you got my name yet?”
“Is that Nicodemus?” says she. “Noo, ‘t ain’t,” that says. “Is that
Sammle?” says she. “Noo, ‘t ain’t,” that says. “A-well, is that
Methusalem?” says she. “Noo, ‘t ain’t that neither,” that says.

Then that looks at her with that’s eyes like a coal o’ fire, and that
says, “Woman, there’s only to-morrow night, and then you’ll be mine!”
And away it flew.

Well, she felt that horrid. However she heard the king coming along the
passage. In he came, and when he sees the five skeins, says he, “Well,
my dear, I don’t see but what you’ll have your skeins ready to-morrow
night as well and as I reckon I shan’t have to kill you, I’ll have
supper in here to-night.” So they brought supper and another stool for
him, and down the two sat.

Well, he hadn’t eaten but a mouthful or so, when he stops and begins to

“What is it?” says she.

“A-why,” says he, “I was out a-hunting to-day, and I got away to a place
in the wood I’d never seen before. And there was an old chalk-pit. And I
heard a kind of a sort of humming. So I got off my hobby, and I went
right quiet to the pit, and I looked down. Well, what should there be
but the funniest little black thing you ever set eyes on. And what was
that doing, but that had a little spinning-wheel, and that was spinning
wonderful fast, and twirling that’s tail. And as that span that sang:

“Nimmy nimmy not
My name’s Tom Tit Tot.”

Well, when the girl heard this, she felt as if she could have jumped out
of her skin for joy, but she didn’t say a word.

Next day that there little thing looked so maliceful when he came for
the flax. And when night came she heard that knocking against the window
panes. She oped the window, and that come right in on the ledge. That
was grinning from ear to ear, and Oo! that’s tail was twirling round so

“What’s my name?” that says, as that gave her the skeins. “Is that
Solomon?” she says, pretending to be afeard. “Noo, ‘t ain’t,” that says,
and that came further into the room. “Well, is that Zebedee?” says she
again. “Noo, ‘t ain’t,” says the impet. And then that laughed and
twirled that’s tail till you couldn’t hardly see it.

“Take time, woman,” that says; “next guess, and you’re mine.” And that
stretched out that’s black hands at her.

Well, she backed a step or two, and she looked at it, and then she
laughed out and says she, pointing her finger at it:

“Nimmy nimmy not
Your name’s Tom Tit Tot.”

Well, when that heard her, that gave an awful shriek and away that flew
into the dark, and she never saw it any more.

The whole book is online here.
It’s ffree for Kindle here.

You can get a picture book retelling by Annie Steel here, oddly described as:
“A delightfully charming tale that is an early version of Rumpelstiltskin, sure to delight your young reader. Taken from English Fairy Tales and retold by Flora Annie Steel, illustrated by Arthur Rankham and Edited by R.F. Gilmor. A classic tale for little hands to hold and to love. Recommended by The Gunston Trust for Nonviolence in Children’s Literature. Ages 5-8.”

And Evaline NEss illustrated one here.
Ness won the 1967 Caldeott for her Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine picture book.

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  1. Frances
    Posted July 2, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I remember that one – seem to recall a book with a red cover.

    The mother and daughter must have had a very non-communicative relationship 🙂 and the less said about the husband the better!

    I think the same book had Cap’O’Rushes, a sort of King Lear situation, where the girl declared she loved her father as fresh meat loves salt and was promptly banished until she was in a position to serve him unsalted meat. Unless I have the wrong story.

    • Headmistress
      Posted July 3, 2018 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

      I do remember Cap O’Rushes, but I have read it in a few different versions. I like that one. And that’s basically how I recall the story, to.

  2. Cat
    Posted July 2, 2018 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Not related: There’s a new documentary out, The Rachel Divide, on Netflix. (Rachel Dolezal)

    • Headmistress
      Posted July 3, 2018 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

      Why is this crazy woman so endlessly fascinating yet distasteful and unbelievable? i am so torn between feeling an unbelievable and uncomfortable amount of pity for her (and the kids), and also… rolling my eyes.

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