Children's story: Helena Writes #39--On nursery rhymes as writing prompts

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 39th post, Helena shares an original children’s story, and the writing exercise behind its inception. Enjoy!


This is a story around the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle.” It’s an assignment I like to offer in my Writing For Children class, from time to time:


Happy Birthday, Bertha Blue: A love story

Stars are twinkling. The barnyard is quiet. Miss Laura is reading by lamplight. Bertha Blue is curled up next to her, nestled into Miss Laura’s quilt.

“Lazy kitty,” says Miss Laura, stroking Bertha’s silky gray coat. Miss Laura takes off her glasses, sets them on the nightstand, and turns off the light.

“She forgot,” the cat is thinking. “Tomorrow’s my birthday.” She sighs and closes her eyes.

The moon clears the pine trees. “Bertha!” someone calls.

Bertha perks up her ears. “Shh!” she answers. But there’s no need to whisper. Miss Laura is already asleep.

The Stray Cats are sitting on the picket fence, like a smile across the moon. Blackie is picking his guitar. Gracie is tuning her fiddle strings. Slick is tapping. Sam is warming up his harmonica.

Off the quilt hops Bertha Blue, out to the kitchen, where mice are scurrying. Where the torn screen is flapping. Over the sill, down through the salad garden into the yard.

“Wake up you animals!” Cries Slick.

Hey diddle diddle!

The cat and the fiddle!

Out in the barn, the horse is snoring, the cow is chewing, the mule is whistling. Crickets are chirping, swallows are peeping, pigs are spluttering. Goats are nursing, hens are sitting.

Gracie is fiddling. Johnny the Dog is dreaming, his feet pawing at the night air smelling of sweet hay.

“Wake up, Johnny!” meows Bertha, one claw catching the dog’s ear.

“Ruff!” says Johnny, opening an eye.

“This here’s a barn dance!” cries Slick.

“A barn dance!” sings Slick.

Johnny the Dog yawns. The mule stomps. The hens complain. Dreamy lambs lift their heads.

“A barn dance!” yeowls Gracie, spinning her fiddle.

Hey diddle diddle

The cat and the fiddle!

Now Johnny is barking!

“Gather up the eggs! Milk the cow! Stir the bowl! Knead the dough! Roll the crust! Whip up the cream! Steam up the biscuits! The hay seed biscuits! The wheat grass biscuits! The clover seed biscuits!

Pour out the honey suckle syrup, spoon out the dandelion jam!”

Dishes are clacking. Spoons are knocking. Pigs are kneading. Geese are rolling.

The Cats are howling!

Hey diddle diddle!

Line up the milk cans! Lay down the board! Set out the pitchers! Put on the kettle! Pour out the Oat Grass, the Pieweed, the Knuckleberry tea! Serve up the Hayseed tarts and the Corncob pie!

Now crunch up, gobble up, slurp up, slop up!

Chow down, hey down, hoe down!

But where is Johnny the Dog?

Don’t tell Bertha! He’s in the milk house, jellying the cake, topping it with candles, one, two, three!

“Happy Birthday!” sing the Cats. “Happy Birthday to youuuuu!”

There stands Johnny, grinning old dog, holding Bertha’s cake.

“Happy Birthday, Bertha Blue!” sing the animals. “Happy Birthday, Bertha Bluuuuuuuuuue!”

“Purrr purrr purrr!” answers the cat.

“Blow out the candles and make a wish,” says Johnny. “And don’t you tell!” he whispers in Bertha’s ear.

“Let’s raise the roof!” calls Slick.

Now everyone’s dancing!

Turkeys, chickens, ducks are kicking. Goats are bopping. The barn boards are creaking, its old stones quaking. Johnny is laughing!

Then up jumps the cow, sailing through the starry sky, over the barn and over the silvery moon.

Out on the roof, Bertha is jigging. Johnny is shimmying. Velvet paws padding, shaggy fur flying.

But wait a minute, the moon is fading. The sky over the pasture is pink.

Put back the board, sweep the barn! Tidy the straw! Stow the fiddle!

Quickly, Bertha, back through the garden, over the windowsill, don’t stop for the mice! Onto the quilt where Miss Laura is putting on her glasses.

Out in the barn, Johnny is barking—“Where are the spoons? Can’t look for them now! It’s time for the milking!”

Miss Laura strokes Bertha’s blue-gray fur. “Are you going to sleep through your birthday?” she asks, brushing a piece of straw from Bertha’s whiskers. Miss Laura slips a new, red sparkly collar around Bertha’s silky neck then heads to the barn.

Bertha is dreaming. She hears Johnny calling, “Come back here, you dishes!”

For down the hill toward the road, dishes are tumbling, spoons are clanking, flashing the light of the sun arising.

“What’s all the fussing?” wonders Miss Laura. “Come on, Bette, it’s time for your milking!”

Miss Laura squints through her glasses out to the road. “Why it looks like a weddin’! And I haven’t heard a word!

Hey diddle diddle,

The cat and the fiddle,

The cow jumped over the moon.

The little dog laughed to see such sport

And the dish ran away with the spoon!


The history of Bertha Blue

Happy Birthday, Bertha Blue came close to publication. But close is only close. My editor at Dutton, the editor who published Once When I Was Scared, held Bertha for three years. I finally had to ask her to make a decision or send it back. I rewrote it, a few years later. Sent it back to her, and again she held it for three years. She also held onto Miss Hindy’s Cats, but that story was acquired by Lerner, Carolrhoda Books. My Dutton editor’s letter to me answering my letter inquiring about Miss Hindy’s Cats read, “I’m on the fence about it.” That’s a line that’s hard to forget. Particularly when I think about Bertha Blue. So I continue to revise Bertha every three or so years. I think of it as a performance piece. It’s fun to read to children. It would be complicated to illustrate, but fun, if one had a contract!

When I’ve assigned it in the classroom, I photocopy nursery rhymes, cut them up, put them in a bag so that each of us can draw one out. It’s the surprise and pressure that gets the writing out. That’s how I wrote Bertha Blue.

I have always had the fantasy of animals having a party, when human beings are asleep. There were stray cats that lived in the backyards of the houses on the street where I lived on Long Island. A few of us fed them. The idea of an animal party crossed my child like mind regularly. I smiled, imagining it, and talked about it to creative friends, friends who'd get it because they had a story telling streak of their own. The thing is, it must be a common fantasy. There are so many animal character stories. The surprise for me was that Johnny and Bertha were a kind of couple. They were in love! Too bad it's the the dish and spoon that run away together! But, then, if it had been the cat and the dog, Miss Laura would have been heartbroken. And that's no way to end a story!

Will you try Helena’s nursery rhyme exercise to write a children’s story? What did you think of Happy Birthday, Bertha Blue? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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