As Lexington author Mike Norris drove to Eastern Kentucky to work with folk artist Minnie Adkins on their first two books, the third one was taking shape.
“Every trip down, two or three rhymes would occur to me,” Norris says, recalling trips to Morehead or Adkins’ home in Isonville to meet. “This one I remember particularly, you know, there’s the spring and here’s the cows and the cow paths,” he adds, referring to the hilly farmland on the road to Adkins home.
Granpaw’s farm is hilly land,
With no smooth place for the cows to stand;
But they stay level as a croquet court,
Two legs long, and two legs short
In the pages of the duo’s third book, Adkins has illustrated Norris’ rhyme with three carved cows standing level on a mountainside with their different-sized legs.
They are just some of the characters in Mommy Goose: Rhymes from the Mountains, the latest collaboration between Adkins, one of Appalachia’s most celebrated folk artists, and Norris, a writer and musician who first met Adkins when he handled public relations for Centre College.
The story has become part of the duo’s legend. She received Centre’s Jane Morton Norton Award, and when she met Norris, he shared his recording of a silly children’s song with her.
“It was, ‘I’ve got a bight blue rooster and a three-legged hog, a wore-out tractor and a no count dog,’” Adkins recalls. “I carved the bright blue rooster and sent it to him and told him I wished he hadn’t given me that because I couldn’t get it out of my head.”
Following that was a succession of packages with carvings of the three-legged hog, the wore out tractor and then two dogs with a note saying, “You can decide which one is more no-count.”
That inspired an entire book based on the song, Down on the Farm, which Norris and Adkins self-published in 1997 and was then republished, with additional carvings to represent all of the characters, by St. Louis-based Joey Books. The imprint also published a follow-up, Sonny the Monkey, about the title character’s hopeless quest for a banana.
All the while, Norris was thinking of the idea for Mommy Goose, a distinctly Appalachian take on Mother Goose, which was published at the beginning of this year by the University Press of Kentucky.
“In Eastern Kentucky, you don’t talk about mother,” Norris says, during a late morning chat in Adkins’ living room. “Even a 70-year-old man will say, ‘I gotta go up the holler and check on mommy.’”
On the surface, the book is a series of stories about mischievous racoons, the medicinal properties of Granmaw’s cooking and the relentless Kudzu Man. Many were dictated into Norris’ iPhone as he tooled along the hairpin turns of the mountain roads where he says, “sometimes you’re going right to go left.”
But it’s not all rural silliness, says Norris, who as with the other books wrote music and recorded an accompanying CD.
“One thing is the worth of the Appalachian dialect,” Norris says of the book’s intent, “and the other is the power of words.”
“If you look at Mommy Goose, she’s a pretty serious goose,” Norris says of Adkins’ carving, which represents the character peering over the top of her glasses, pulled down. “Just look at where there would usually be ‘about the author,’ it’s ‘about Mommy Goose,’ and it says ‘Mommy Goose is an Appalachian Bird, like cows, love corn, she loves words.’”
Another one of Norris aims was to find a balance between popular portrayals of Appalachia.
“For me, this book is supposed to be a representation of Appalachia, and specifically Eastern Kentucky,” Norris says. “Eastern Kentucky is usually portrayed in extremes. It’s either front porches and dulcimers and apple stack cake or its all drug addiction, diabetes and poverty. It’s like all places, it’s a combination of light and dark.”
If you read between the lines, there are references to black lung disease, addiction and politics — the dark.
Regardless of the rhyme, the book kept Adkins busy, carving many more figures than she did for the first two. While she continued to work on her own art projects, filling orders and making items for events like the annual A Day in the Country festival she founded and now continues in Morehead (June 4) and Minnie Adkins Day art and craft market in Elliott County (June 16), Adkins says the book took up the better part of a year’s work.
She doesn’t mind.
“It’s kept me a’ going,” Adkins says. “I’ll be 82 in March, and I always have some sort of art project going to me busy, because the scriptures tell us to occupy ourselves until Jesus comes, and that means to keep busy.”
And she and Norris plan to do just that. They are planning for at least seven books. And that’s just fine with Adkins.
“Folk art is from the heart,” Adkins says. “Fine art is from the knowledge. Folk art you make from what you love and what you want to create.”
If You Go
‘Mommy Goose’ events
What: Mike Norris will read from and sign copies of Mommy Goose.
When: 2 p.m. Feb. 21
Where: Morris Bookshop, 882 E. High St.
What: Minnie Adkins and Mike Norris discuss and sign Mommy Goose
When: 11 a.m. March 5
Where: Coffee Tree Books, 159 E. Main St., Morehead
What: Mike Norris performance and signing
When: 11 a.m. March 19
Where: Joseph Beth Booksellers, 161 Lexington Green Circle