The Poky Little Puppy is a classic Little Golden Book by Texas writer Janette Sebring Lowrey, illustrated by Gustav Tenngren. This story was one of the first 12 Little Golden Books, first published in 1942, a big year in general for the world. Parents were wanting something light and playful for themselves and for their children, no doubt. 40 years later, The Poky Little Puppy was one of my favourite books as a preschooler and when I told my mother this, she said it had been my Auntie Sue’s absolute favourite as well. Fast forward another 30 years and my own kid loved it.
What I’d like to know is this: Can we put into words what makes The Poky Little Puppy such a popular picture book, so enduring it spans at least three generations (so far)? I know we’re not the only family this applies to; The Poky Little Puppy is the tentpole Little Golden Book which helps to sell other (also popular) Little Golden Books:
The Poky Little Puppy itself is a descendent of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, whichin turn is a descendent of 3000 years of mythic adventures starring (mainly) boys embarking upon adventures then returning home changed. The Poky Little Puppy is the cosy equivalent, for preschoolers, with no real opposition. As we shall see, any potential scariness of this adventure has been stripped away.
Although I won’t get into the language aspects here, The Poky Little Puppy is, above everything, a beautiful thing to read aloud. You can’t not read it in a kind of sing-song voice pitched at preschoolers. The text also contain parts which are likely to become catch phrases, used outside the reading of this book:
The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979) was the first picture book by American author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, who himself admits astonishment at the book’s immediate success. This was helped by reviews in America-wide publications. Such attention has always been unusual for children’s stories, and perhaps says something about how this story appeals to all ages. Like Australia’s Shaun Tan, the picture books of Chris Van Allsburg work as coffee table displays, and you could easily hang these illustrations on a wall as fine art.
“The Widow’s Broom” is a 1992 picture book by American author illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Like many of Van Allsburg’s books, this one remains popular with teachers, partly because this is a storyteller who requires the reader to do a little work. Students can practise their inference skills in class.
Like all good stories which rely on reader imagination, this picture book can be interpreted in a number of ways.
THE DUAL AUDIENCE OF THE WIDOW’S BROOM
This is an example of a story which will be used one way in the infant classroom and quite differently in the senior Language Arts classroom.
A broom which ‘walks’, feeds chickens and plays piano will appeal to children at an early stage of development, which Piaget described as spatial egocentrism. He also talked about child development and animism, the worldview that non-human entities possess consciousness and a life of its own. In modern picture books animism tends to finds an outworking in animals who walk and talk like humans.
[A]nimism…is the belief that everything in nature has consciousness and life…. When Christopher Robin, the child in Winnie-the-Pooh, talks to his woodland friends, a donkey, a tiger, an owl, a pig, and a bear, he is engaged in what Jean Piaget has called ‘animism’. As do the majority of picture books that feature animal characters, a child engaged in animism, readily accepts that animals can and do behave as humans. An example is Olivia, Ian Falconer’s character who has resonated with adults and children alike and is the protagonist of [more than] five titles.
Go back in time, to the early 1900s and before, and you’ll find plenty of children’s stories in which household objects come alive. This trend mostly seems to have gone away. (Likewise you won’t find so many moons with actual faces on them in contemporary picture books.)
When picture book storytellers do utilise animism to bring household objects alive, it’s generally to hark back to an earlier time. Here, to the pre-Christian world of superstition, modern ideas about Paganism, and fairytale. Therein lies the historical interest for older readers, culminating in a quite sophisticated message about humankind.
I Am Not A Fox is a picture book written by Karina Wolf and illustrated by Chuck Groenink. If you’ve ever read “The Ugly Duckling” and thought, “hmm, that message has problems”, then this one might be for you.
Gaston is a picture book written by Kelly DiPucchio and illustrated in beautiful naive style by Christian Robinson. The colour palette is gorgeous.
I liken Gaston to another popular contemporary picture book: Drew Daywalt’s The Day The Crayons Quit. The plots are not at all similar, but they share the same ideological problems, intending to say one thing, inadvertently saying another.
Every year my daughter and I watch the 2005 Disney miniseries adaptation of Little House On The Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We usually watch it in winter, on a day with inclement weather. Now that she’s 12, she’s ready for the books. She picked out Little House On The Prairie in the middle of winter. I’m not surprised; these books are peak hygge. They also appeal to the wish fulifilment fantasy of self-sufficiency. I’ve watched a few episodes of Doomsday Preppers and temporarily experienced the same delusion: that there is such a thing as self-sufficiency among small, tight-knit communties, and that I should probably start collecting canned food.
Cannonball Simp is a picture book written and illustrated by John Burningham, first published 1966. This is a story from an earlier Golden Age of children’s literature, one in which ending up in a circus is a good outcome, and also, well, words sometimes change.
It’s shame that the 2020 meaning of the word ‘simp’ means something completely different, but there’s always a chance that a harmless word used in 1966 by a children’s storyteller will be appropriated by terrible people at some point. I won’t link to a definition here. Those who don’t know the modern meaning are ill-advised to find out.
SETTING OF SIMP
PERIOD — The twentieth century
DURATION — A week or so? In human time, not much. For Simp, it would feel more like a year, with the complete rollercoaster of emotions.
LOCATION — England
ARENA — The story is mythic structure and readers will conceive of this story as a road/path through a large arena of space.
MANMADE SPACES — Cities and suburbs, finally the enclosed arena of a circus, narrowing down to a stage surrounded by an adoring crowd.
NATURAL SETTINGS — This story is very much contingent upon human technology. Simp is a dog living within a human domain and utterly dependent upon the kindness of humans. There’s no fairytale forest where she might live a lonely but well-fed existence.
WEATHER — John Burningham’s illustrations are gritty and the hand of the artist is evidence, resulting in a grungy feel which puts the viewer in mind of the dirtiness of the human inhabitated spaces but also of an inhospitable climate. This feeling peaks when Simp looks at the clown through the window of his caravan. The clown’s nose is clownish, but almost makes him look like he’s got a headcold.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The dog catcher and his van are crucial.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT — The wider world is industrialised to the point where everyone is too busy getting on with their aspirationally capitalist lives to notice or care for an abandoned pup among them.
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — Simp sees the world exactly how it is — she knows she is unpretty and that this will hamper her chances of finding a family and a loving home. Until she happens upon the circus, she does not know that the circus is another place to find misfits, and that as a misfit she’ll find a home there.
STORY STRUCTURE OF SIMP
There are many stories about outcast animals or creatures who wander round narrowly avoiding death until finding a new family. We see numerous examples in fairytale. Cannonball Simp reminds me of two fairytales in particular: Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling. Hans Christian Andersen was especially attracted to stories about rejected outcasts.
A small dog, abandoned near a trash dump and captured by a dog catcher, finds a home for herself when she is befriended by a circus clown whose act needs improving.
I know this sounds ridiculous, but only because people are ridiculous. Racism extends to black dogs. Golden dogs don’t suffer the same suspicion and are more easily rehomed.
She will eventually meet the human equivalent of an abandoned dog — a clown who is first outcast by society by dint of being a clown, and then by the circus men who will fire him if he can’t make enough money for them.
First the owner of her mother doesn’t want her. Then society ignores her as an outcast. This general indifference coalesces in the dogcatcher.
Because this is a mythic journey, Simp also meets characters who help her. The rats at the garbage dump give her bread, but can’t find enough food for themselves let along a dog, and advise her to move on. (That’s the part that reminds me of Thumbelina.)
Since this is a melodramatic tale, Simp has no plan until she starts to feel less thrown around by circumstances. The change happens when she has the idea to be a cannonball. (This is the point where I worry for Simp.) Normally the plan part of a story happens before the big battles, interwoven into the character’s struggles, but in this case, the planning stage comes later, after the near death experience.
The dog with the beard is functioning as the wise old man archetype. The knowing reader will understand that, without a family to collect her, Simp is destined for the gas chamber. This is a good example of a plot point that will be understood differently by differently aged readers; the reader too young to understand the stakes is also too young to deal with those stakes.
Simp will continue to live with the clown, still on the road, but this time with a new family. Not only has he found a family, he has also found an adoring audience who love to see him shot out of a cannon.
We know the moment Simp has found her new family: She sleeps at the end of the clown’s bed.
I know we’re supposed to believe this is perfectly safe, but I believe there’s an accident waiting to happen.
But even if the cannonball trick works well forever, I’m still salty that the clown and the dog are making money for those capitalist fuckers who run the circus, who are quite happy to metaphorically fire their talent. It would’ve been a happier ending if the clown and the dog struck out on their own, imo.
Apart from the degradation of the word ‘simp’, a few other cultural evolutions have happened since Cannonball Simp was published, and these I can’t complain about: More and more parents avoid supporting the exploitative industry of the traditional travelling circus, which is basically terrible for animals. Therefore I’d guess that fewer modern children will have ever seen a circus, familiar with the basic concept only via retro children’s stories such as this one. Modern children, at least where I live, will have been to related festivals and carnivals such as rural ‘shows’, which are less and less about the stock animals and more about the coffee, the rides and the show bags.
I was a child of the 80s and I did visit the circus once. Significantly, I was taken by my Nana rather than by my parents. My grandparents’ generation were about the last en masse to consider a trip to the circus an important part of childhood.
The circus still exists. However, I haven’t been. I don’t know anyone who’d support the industry and fail to see how they survive in Australia. I guess the shows look a little different these days, but who knows.
Cannonball Simp was adapted for TV in the 1980s, which was the tailend of the golden age of the circus.
THE STORYBOOK CIRCUS
The change in approach to the storybook circus mirrors changes to the storybook zoo. Below are some circus illustrations from various picture books.
The circus hasn’t always involved the iconic big tent. These illustrations by Anto Pieck show how the circus evolved from showing off in the town square. Then I guess locals get bored of your tricks so you start travelling from town to town, finding a new audience.
Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must Be More To Life is an illustrated short story, though some might just call it a picture book. The language is too sophisticated to count as an early reader, unlike the Mercy Watson series, of a similar length and also divided into chapters.
Why divide such a short story into chapters, anyway? In the case of the Mercy Watson series, the young reader feels a sense of achievement after finishing each chapter. Also, the point of view switches between Mercy Watson’s house and that of their neighbours, Eugenia and Baby. In Higglety Pigglety Pop! the chapters strike me as a parody of a longer, mythically structured work.
The Kirkus reviewer also had difficulty classifying this story as a picture book:
Maurice Sendak’s books have been, right along, projections of concepts rather than pictorializations of plots, so that it is almost gratuitous to hail his arrival as an author; but this tidy little package, despite its size and shape, is not a picture book, nor is it, like Hector Protector an elaboration of Mother Goose for little children – there is more to life, and his supple style matches his consummate skill as an artist.
Despite the title, the main character of this story is a dog. (The pig is secondary.) The terrier is called Jennie, and she is based on a real dog:
Dogs frequently appear in the picture books of Maurice Sendak. The best known is Jennie, the Sealyham terrier pursued down the stairs by Max in Where the Wild Things Are (1963). Reflecting on the fourteen-year partnership with his dog, Sendak said, “Jennie was the love of my life.” Jennie appeared in most of Sendak’s books from 1954 to her death, which is memorialized in Higglety Pigglety Pop! or There Must be More to Life (1967). The dramatist, Tony Kushner, has written that Higglety Pigglety Pop is “perhaps the most personal work of an artist who unstintingly mines his own psyche and soul for his art. Higglety belongs to the select library of essential art about death and grief.”
Jan Susina, Sendak Goes to the Dogs: Maurice Sendak’s Empathic View of Dogs
Sendak wrote this book while grieving the death of his dog Jennie.
Typically, picture books about death and grief require a metaphorical interpretation from the reader. See also Australian picture book John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Australian example also features a beloved dog with a typically human name.
Why are picture books about death so surreal and metaphorical? A young child, perhaps not yet ready for stories about death and grief, will instead be enjoying a surface level narrative, in this case the story of a dog who leaves him to be an actor in a play. I believe the thinking behind this is: The child won’t understand the sadness until they are developmentally ready to understand it.
Whether this works in practice, I don’t know. In theory it’s possible to have a sophisticated metaphorical understanding of narrative and still not be developmentally ready for death plots.
Besides, there’s plenty that’s harrowing in the surface reading of this story: The absent parents who have forgotten how to get back home to baby, the fact that everyone else has forgotten baby’s name, the button near the ground that means the nurse will be fed to the lions and also its seventh victim (in a plot point reminiscent of Bluebeard).
There’s also this idea that children can hook into the deeper meanings of texts precisely because of their lack of experience in the world. The Kirkus reviewer clearly subscribed to that idea:
You can’t compress the reverberations into a review, and certainly not the ominous illustrations; it may by-pass some adults because Sendak speaks directly to the elastic imagination of children.
It’s worth noting that Maurice Sendak never self-identified as a children’s writer. He said he just made things, and others decided who would read it.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATIONS
Others have pointed out that Sendak’s illustrations are reminiscent of Doré and Dürer. They are rich in hatching and line detail, and relatively flat, tonally.
Sendak drew his toddlers with the faces and facial expressions of much older people, which I find creepy, though this creepiness fits the overall vibe.
SETTING OF HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! OR THERE’S MORE TO LIFE THAN THIS
PERIOD — during the real Jennie’s lifetime, mid 20th century. But there are so many fairytale/mythological aspects to this story that it’s in some ways atemporal (save the details which place it firmly in the 20th century — the house furnishings etc.)
DURATION — Unclear. Maybe a week, maybe weeks. Being is time and time is finite. For human beings, time comes to an end with our death. Stories about death tend to be ambiguous in this regard.
LOCATION — Starts in the home, sees the hero on a mythic path, ends on a stage.
MANMADE SPACES — The road is a literal road in this story (sometimes a river, for instance, in other stories). There’s a house, an aristocratic house (where the baby lives) and a castle.
NATURAL SETTINGS —The Forest is significant. The flat land is bordered by mountains in the distance.
WEATHER — Comfortable, like a utopian setting. Moonlit at night.
TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — The details of Jennie’s medicines are oddly specific, and once you know Jennie was a real dog, we can deduce that the real Jennie was using these medicines at the end of her life. This technology isn’t ‘necessary’ for the story to work, but do show the reader that Jennie is probably elderly.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT — This refers to the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. Life and death is an evergreen psychological conflict.
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The land which lives inside the main character. Jennie is wrong to think that nothing is better than everything, but she has to experience having nothing to see that this is not what she wanted, either. To have nothing is to be dead. After she experiences nothingness, she moves onto the next plane in something akin to Heidegger’s Being-toward-death. However, Being-toward-death refers to the acceptance that one is going to die someday. The ‘acceptance’ that happens in this story is an end-of-life acceptance, and I think that’s something different. Perhaps a Heidegger expert can clarify.
STORY STRUCTURE OF HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP! OR THERE MUST BE MORE TO LIFE
Higglety, Pigglety, Pop, The dog has eaten the mop. The pig’s in a hurry, The cat’s in a flurry, Higglety, pigglety, pop.
Mother Goose nusery rhyme
Only the end (story-within-a-story play) part of the structure has much to do with the nursery rhyme, aside from the cast, which includes a dog (main character), pig and cat in both nursery rhyme and storybook. Clearly, there’s not a helluva lot to work with in five lines, so Sendak fleshed it right out and turned it into mythological journey into the darkest reaches of the soul, culminating in metaphorical death.
A daring imagination has woven a simple rhyme into a brilliantly original tale about Jennie, the Sealyham terrier, who seeks Experience and becomes the star of the World Mother Goose Theatre.
The ideology of this story: Satisfaction in life comes from wanting more. Humans are compelled to always want something more. This is psychologically true and explains how humans have come to dominate (and wreck) the planet. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that having nothing is also not great.
On the surface, Jennie leaves home because she is ineffably dissasfied. (It’s right there in the subtitle.) The young men of fairy tales often start out like this, leaving home to ‘seek their fortune’, presumably because they’re bored with how things are panning out at home. A significant number of children’s stories start with the character in a place of boredom. In this particular story, there’s an existential loneliness mixed in.
If we approach this story from a philosophical point of view, using the terminology of Heidegger, the words Vorlaufen and Erwarten come in handy.
Heidegger drew a distinction between anticipation (Vorlaufen) and expectation, or awaiting (Erwarten). At the beginning of this story, Jennie is anticipating something, and we see her ‘awaiting’ something as she looks out of the window (a very common visual metaphor in children’s stories). But as soon as she leaves the house, she metaphorically enters a new phase of understanding: she is on a journey towards death acceptance. Not death in general — she doesn’t give a damn about the life of that plant she just ate — her own death. She won’t fully understand death until she contemplates the end of her own life.
(Heidegger worked on the idea that only human beings die. He thought plants and animals simply perish. Sendak has personified the plant. The plant’s death is clearly the first real death of this story.)
Stories don’t satisfy an audience until the main character wants something. Although Jennie starts out with no goal in mind (other than to get the hell out of the house), she very soon does settle upon a goal: she wants to act in a play. This desire is what propels her forward in her journey. First she requires ‘Experience’.
Sendak plays with the various permutations of this word and how we typically use it in English to mean
Work experience, a prerequisite for many jobs
A positive event in one’s life
A negative event in one’s life (euphemistically)
Presumably because she is a dog, Jennie’s understanding of English is limited. She shares this in common with the child reader. Jennie embodies both adult and child at once — a naive child in the adult role of a nurse, and the brave role of a lion-fighting knight.
Typically in stories there are two distinct layers of opposition: the ‘family’ and the ‘Minotaur’. Friends and family are natural opponents for wanting different things. These things don’t tend to be life and death. Jennie and the potplant are opponents because Jennie wants to leave and the plant clearly wants to dissuade her, craving company. Jennie eats off all of its leaves and it can’t talk anymore.
Next, Jennie and the Baby are opponents. The baby won’t eat, and if the baby won’t eat, Jennie will be fed to the lion. As far as ‘family opposition’ goes, the threat of death is stronger than average. Normally in stories, families are squabbling about relatively incosequential things (in comparison to the big, outside, Minotaur opposition).
As for the Minotaur opponent in this tale, that would be the big, bad opposition that represents life and death: the Lion — typically used as Minotaur opposition — unreasonable, with the huge appetite of an ogre. An ogre/Lion can like you perfectly well and still want to eat you up. It’s impossible to reason with this category of opponent.
Metaphorically, the Lion represents our greatest fear — fear of death. The following sentence offers clear insight into that:
Because Jennie is naively stumbling through the world, she misinterprets the requirements of acting. She is told she needs Experience, subtext reading she needs acting experience, but when she hears of a (dangerous) nursing job and is told that it will certainly be ‘an Experience’ she figures that’ll do nicely to propel her toward her goal.
Stories that culminate in a play/sports event/competition have a climax baked into the plot. But we shouldn’t confuse that part of the story for the near-death section — metaphorically the part where the hero reaches the centre of the labyrinth and confronts the Minotaur.
The mythological vibe of Higglety Pigglety Pop! is clear. Jennie pops her head right into the lion’s mouth. Turns out she was only bluffing as a way to save Baby and she escapes without her beard ‘which never grew back’. This is Jennie’s near-death experience.
In a differently structured story, also featuring a ‘play’, contrast with About A Boy. In that story, the stage performance is the near death experience. (Social death, for the young boy.) The stage scene also functions to show the audience that the older ‘boy’ (played by Hugh Grant in the movie) has finally sacrificed his dignity to do something nice for someone else. He has grown as a human being.
Extrapolating for metaphor, the stage play has functioned as the portal into death, and a microcosm of the overall absurdism/futility of life. When taking a broad view of life, it’s difficult to take seriously things which once seemed so very important.
There IS more to life: death! Life and death are part of the same cycle, an ideology that wends its way right through children’s literature.
Scene: room in a very terrific place.
We can assume they end up in Heaven, or the reader’s cultural equivalent.
Looking through the various reactions to this story from consumers, Higglety Pigglety Pop! is a divisive story. Readers seem to find it either attractively surreal or creepily off-putting. But Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are cemented Sendak’s position as an influential American 20th century storyteller, ensuring that there will long be an audience who seek out his other work.
Sendak’s book is now better known (at least on the Internet) than the Mother Goose nursery rhyme around which it is written.
John Brown and the Midnight Cat is a classic Australian picture book written by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks. This story is an excellent example of how a story for children can mean something completely different — and disturbing — for adults. This children’s story gives me chills.
As you read, pay special attention to the pictures in this one, which tell a very different story. Recall everything you’ve ever absorbed about universal symbols. Pay attention also to the way vertical lines and framing is used to separate character from each other, also separating inside from outside.
Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?
Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).