Michele Landsberg
September 21, 1990 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Old MacDonald Had a Farm

Current Status
In Season
Nancy Hellen
Orchard Books
Fiction, Kids and Family

We gave it an A

Usually, picture books that illustrate favorite old kiddie songs evoke a curmudgeonly response from me. It seems like a cheap trick, an easy way to duck the author’s obligation to write a strong, original story. And of all such songs, the one that puts me in a coma with just one chorus is ”Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Nancy Hellen’s Old MacDonald Had a Farm is different, however, going beyond gimmickry to create the paper equivalent of music. The first page features a big bright illustration of the farmer and the first line of the song with a cutout of a farm scene. Turn the page and what was a floppy pile of flour sacks or a water barrel on one side of the page turns out to be a smiling cow or a pig, now standing beside MacDonald, on the other side of the page.

A second trick of overlapping pages evokes the cumulative chorus: By the time you’ve turned all the pages, the livestock are all grouped around MacDonald and, underneath, the text of the repetitive chorus is displayed in full.

There’s something about this progressive building-up of a picture that should remind even the most jaded adult of the song’s childhood pleasure: the satisfaction of repeating and adding words until it’s all roundly finished. Neat. A

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