Happy Birthday to You! The Mystery Behind the Most Famous Song in the World, by Margot Theis Raven and paintings by Chris Soentpiet
“Imagine having a birthday with no one singing the song “Happy Birthday to You.” Before the 1900s, that’s exactly the way things were. You might have had presents, cake, candles, and cards, but there was no Happy Birthday song to sing because it had not yet been written. Then once upon a happy day the famous song was born in a children’s garden. Impossible, you say? Grow a song in a garden? Not impossible at all for a most unusual family that lived in a most unusual home at the time of the Civil War ….”
Tomorrow is my birthday (or maybe today, depending whether the calendar has turned to Friday where you are), so what better time than the last evening of my 30s to tell you about a perfectly delightful children’s picture book, Happy Birthday to You! The Mystery Behind the Most Famous Song in the World.
I almost hesitate to categorize this as a children’s book, because it really is one of those classically beautiful stories (think Love You Forever by Robert Munsch) for all ages. This is the story of the Hill family, whose patriarch Rev. William Hill founded a school “to instruct young women of the South. He believed, most unusually for steamboat days, an educated woman need not marry to have a home.” (Yes! My man!) This was also in the days when children toiled in factories, but Rev. Hill and his wife Martha believed “that play was a child’s most important work, the way to discover the world.” Their household was one filled with play, songs, and poetry.
Patty Hill became acquainted with another Kentucky native, Anna Bryan, who brought a new educational concept – kindergarten – to Louisville. Under Miss Bryan’s tutelage, Patty studied to become a kindergarten teacher. Just as her parents did, Patty wrote a simple little ditty to welcome the children to the classroom each day: “Good morning to you, Good morning to you, Good morning dear children, Good morning to all!” Patty and her sisters had fun trying out different verses (“Happy Vacation to You”, “Happy New Year”, “Happy Christmas”) and then, “Happy Birthday.” The next child who had a birthday in Patty Hill’s kindergarten class was serenaded with the “Happy Birthday” song … and the rest is history.
Happy Birthday to You! concludes with a fascinating historical timeline of the song, from its inclusion in Patty Hill’s “Kindergarten Exhibition” at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, to being included in a 1924 song book as the second verse to “Good Morning to All!” (with no attribution to Patty Hill), to its popularity as a Singing Telegram song (again, uncredited and unattributed), and to an Irving Berlin musical.
It wouldn’t be until 1935, when Patty Hill retired from teaching, before the song was copyrighted and credited to Patty and Mildred Hill. Today, whenever the melody and lyrics are commercially used, a royalty is paid to the Hill Foundation, which promotes early-childhood education. The song royalties typically generate $2 million annually. Patty Hill died in 1946, and according to the book, mourners sang “Happy Birthday to You” during her funeral.
I absolutely adored this book. The illustrations are gorgeous and the story is captivating. My kids liked it, but weren’t crazed about it. I do think that the verbiage is a little excessive in some places – a lot of details and people that could seem overwhelming to a younger child. Barnes and Noble has this listed as suitable for kids ages 5-11, or grades 1-4 and I think that’s pretty accurate. Slightly older kids than my 7 year olds might enjoy this – and, I suspect, a few of their parents too.
Yup – even ones who are 40, like me.