The Classroom Bookshelf
Inside The Classroom Bookshelf

Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes

Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes
Edited by Elizabeth Hammill; Illustrated by over 70 acclaimed artists
Published by Candlewick Press, 2015
ISBN #978-0763677299

Grades PreK and up

Book Review

Listen carefully, and you’ll notice there are “tiny masterpieces of verse” all around us. Celebrate this observation (and April as National Poetry Month) with Over the Hills and Far Away, where 150 childhood nursery rhymes abound in this colorful compilation, edited by Elizabeth Hammill and illustrated by over 70 different artists. This is no ordinary collection of jump-rope chants, riddles, finger games, lullabies, and just fun nonsensical rhymes. While it may initially seem like an eclectic collection, Hammill’s acuity as an editor becomes clear as we see rhymes purposefully juxtaposed with each other in very clever ways. Sometimes a rhyme is matched with its counterpart from another culture: did you know “Little Miss Muffet” has English, Jamaican, American, and Australian versions? Other times, paired rhymes share stylistic similarities (tongue-twisters featuring Peter Piper and Betty Botter comprise a double-page spread). The illustrations are likewise globally diverse and inspired, provided by acclaimed artists including Emily Gravett, Eric Carle, Jon Klassen, Jerry Pinkney, Nina Crews, and many others. Useful back matter includes information about each illustrator, an index of first lines, and a list of sources. A stunning and surefire hit among students and teachers alike, with dozens of possibilities for instructional application, this may perhaps be the ultimate classroom nursery rhyme collection.

Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Shared Reading. Keep this volume close at hand to read its poems aloud throughout National Poetry Month and the rest of the school year. Select children’s favorites to rewrite on sentence strips to post in a pocket chart. Keep the lines of the poem whole on the sentence strips or cut them into individual word cards so that students can reassemble the poem from memory using letter/sound or sight word cues.

Rimes and Rhymes. Use the nursery rhymes in this volume as authentic texts for word study of rimes and rhymes. When teaching students about a particular rhyme sound, have them also find examples from the poems that show the various rimes that spell that sound (e.g., –ale and –ail, -oon and -une). Have them do this individually or in small groups, focusing on one rhyme sound at a time. You might want to photocopy certain poems from the book and arm students with highlighters, or rewrite some poems on large chart paper and have students circle the rimes during whole-class interactive reading sessions. Then, challenge them to come up with more rimes on their own to match a particular rhyme sound.

Nursery Rhymes Across the Ages. Hammill’s collection is wonderfully multicultural in its inclusion of nursery rhymes. Because of their oral tradition, what’s also interesting about nursery rhymes is that they often undergo various iterations across different generations. Have students ask family and community members across different generations about all the nursery rhymes that were popular when they were children, including riddles, lullabies, and playground rhymes. Have them transcribe these rhymes and display them before the class to compare and contrast them. You might even invite students’ family and community members to visit your class and recite some of the nursery rhymes from their childhood for the class.

Be the Editor. If your students were to gather a collection of their favorite poems, how might they purposefully arrange them into a book? Teach students the analytic and organizational skills needed to be an editor of a volume of collected works. Use Over the Hills and Far Away as a mentor text, explicitly discussing with students how Elizabeth Hammill thought carefully not just about which nursery rhymes to include, but also how to group and juxtapose them to convey more meaning than they poems themselves do. You might also want to use the poetry collections edited by Paul Janeczko, Lee Bennett Hopkins, and Chris Raschka. Ask the school or local library to display the class volume for others to reflect upon and peruse.

Illustrating Poetry. Over the Hills and Far Away has a unique illustration for each of its poems. Have your class study the illustrations, using a reference like Molly Bang’s Picture This to understand how line, color, composition, and other artistic principles enhance the meaning of a written text. Then have each of your students gather a few of their favorite nursery rhymes and apply those principles to illustrate the rhymes. Have each student create an anthology of their illustrated rhymes, or have small groups individually illustrate the same rhyme, then compare and discuss their different illustrative interpretations create a class anthology or bulletin board that showcases the variety of selected nursery rhymes and illustrations.

Illustrator Studies. The celebration of illustrators in this book invites readers to compare and contrast the artwork of the contributors. Have your students spend time examining the illustrations in this book and then, individually or in small groups, select an illustrator to study more closely. Help them gather a variety of that illustrator’s books to survey the artwork in it. What characterizes the illustrator’s artistic style? Are there any idiosyncrasies particular to that illustrator? What is his or her favorite media to use? You may want to refer to the illustrator compilation by Eric Carle, Artist to Artist, and consult your local librarian, the Internet, and other biographical sources to answer these questions. You might also have students look at the books What’s Your Favorite Animal? and Nursery Rhyme Comics. which also brings together celebrated children’s illustrators. Then, have students try their hand at illustrating their favorite nursery rhyme in the style of the illustrator they studied.

Reading Buddies and Poetry Month. Have your older elementary students read aloud some of the poems in Over the Hills and Far Away with their primary grade reading buddies. Have them take notes on their reading buddies’ reactions to the poems, and then compare and contrast with one another. What do their reading buddies think of the poems and illustrations in this book? As a component of this exercise, you might want to have the older students work with their reading buddies in jointly authoring and illustrating short poems.

Nursery Rhyme Origins
. Many of these verses have origins that go back for centuries; others for perhaps only decades. In the book’s introduction, Hammill notes these rhymes “have outlasted their origins as street cries, folk songs, political satire, remnants of custom and proverb and have been polished into perfect form over time.” Engage students in inquiry projects that research the origins of one or several of these nursery rhymes. What are the differences between the rhyme and its origins? Why do you think it changed across time? How were topics treated, and what perspectives on them were given power.? Besides helping them conduct research online, have them work with the school or local librarian to find other sources of information. Be warned, though, that some of these rhymes do have dark origins, so you may want to do this research on your own ahead of time.

Further Explorations

Online Resources 

Nursery rhyme websites

Benefits of reading nursery rhymes

Origins of nursery rhymes


Ada, A. F., & Campob, F. I. (Eds.). (2003). Pio peep! Trans. by A. Schertle, Ill. by V. Escrivá. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Carle, E., & others. (2007). Artist to artist: 23 major illustrators talk to children about their art. New York: Philomel.

Carle, E., & others. (2014). What’s your favorite animal? New York: Henry Holt and Co. 

Chorao, K. (2009). Rhymes ’round the world. New York: Dutton Books for Young Readers.

Crews, N. (2003). The neighborhood Mother Goose. New York: Greenwillow Books.

Crews, N. (2011). The neighborhood sing-along. New York: Greenwillow Books.

Duffy, C. (Ed.) (2011). Nursery rhyme comics. Ill. by various artists. New York: First Second.

Hallworth, G. (Ed.). (2011). Down by the river: Afro-Caribbean rhymes, games, and songs for children. Ill. by C. Binch. London, UK: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.

Henderson, K. (Ed.). (2011). Hush, baby, hush!: Lullabies from around the world. Ill. by P. Smy. London, UK: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.

Sierra, J. (Ed.) (2012). Schoolyard rhymes. Ill. by M. Sweet. New York: Knopf Books for Young Readers.

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.