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:
- I smell something!
- roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble
- mother was greatly displeased
Pigs are shaped like little kids. Their bodies are smaller than their heads. Pigs are supposed to be intelligent, smarter than dogs, but they’re a bit awkward. Their trotters are like little kids’ arms that don’t work very well yet.Ian Falconer
“In the second place, I am not interested in pigs. Pigs mean less than nothing to me.”E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
“What do you mean, less than nothing?” replied Wilbur. “I don’t think there is any such thing as less than nothing. Nothing is absolutely the limit of nothingness. It’s the lowest you can go. It’s the end of the line. How can something be less than nothing? If there were something that was less than nothing, then nothing would not be nothing, it would be something – even though it’s just a very little bit of something. But if nothing is nothing, then nothing has nothing that is less than it is.”
- The Three Pigs (fairytale)
- The Three Little Wolves And The Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury
- Bertie’s Escapade by Kenneth Grahame
- Winnie-the-Pooh (with Piglet)
- Olivia by Ian Falconer
- Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer
- Olivia and the Missing Toy by Ian Falconer
- Pig The Pug by Aaron Blabey
- Pig The Winner by Aaron Blabey
- Bread And Jam For Frances by Russell and Lilian Hoban
- Garth Pig And The Ice-cream Lady by Mary Rayner (basically the British version of Bread and Jam for Frances)
- The Tale of Pigling Bland by Beatrix Potter
- Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig by Kate diCamillo and Chris Van Dusen
- Mercy Watson Fights Crime
- Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and Garth Williams
- Pig Tale by Helen Oxenbury
- Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli)
- Elephant and Piggie by Mo Willems and his team of ghost writers
The huge advantages I can see for an illustrator turning a child character into a pig:
- Pigs don’t need to have skin colour. Technically, any middle-class kid could see themselves in Olivia, though it would be interesting to know if black girls consider pink pigs ‘white’, or if we need a black pig to achieve the job of self-reflection. The part where Olivia goes to the beach and turns pink (from monochrome) kind of means Olivia gets coded as white, so in this particular instance, the issue of skin-colour is perhaps not avoided after all. (Black kids don’t turn pink after a day in the sun.)
- Falconer can depict Olivia with no clothes on at all and avoid charges of inappropriate content and censoring. Yet little kids very often do prance about with no clothes on, or just a hat, and these scenes are indeed shown in this book. Another picture book (this time Australian) in which toddlers prance around naked is Rudie Nudie by Emma Quay, but in this case the sensitive areas are always discreetly covered — an amazing achievement when depicting carefree, uninhibited body language while at the same time covering the crotch.
- We are familiar with Olivia now, so it’s hard to remember that pigs in children’s books are typically not like Olivia in personality. They tend to be Wilbur types (from Charlotte’s Web), in which they sort of know they’re human food and have this worried aura to them, or they stand in for the messy/greedy/uncouth side of little kids. Olivia doesn’t have these aspects to her character at all — she is a young fashion-designer who attempts to be graceful but is trapped inside the limitations of her pig’s (toddler’s) body. Her exuberance means she’s the opposite of lazy.
Here’s a list of fictional pigs.
The Monster At The End Of This Book by Jon Stone and Michael Smolin (1971) is possibly the most successful Little Golden Book starring Sesame Street characters. I grew up with it myself, though I can’t put my hands on it right now so I’ll be talking specifically about the app, which came out decades later, soon after the first tablet computers hit the market.Continue reading “The Monster At The End Of This Book”
If you’ve ever heard advice to avoid black out of the tube when painting, this article is a good explainer for what that actually means in practice.
Below is a collection of art in which I think the black looks really great.Continue reading “Flat Black in Picture Books and Art”
You win some, you lose some. Aesop was an equal opportunity storyteller and the tortoise of fables sometimes gets a raw deal. But not this particular tortoise. Sometimes it’s “The Hare and the Tortoise”, sometimes it’s “The Tortoise and the Hare”. This tortoise just goes about his business and wins the day. I’ve never once heard him complain that he hasn’t been billed first in the title.
How do picture book storytellers expand this well-known fable to flesh out a 32 page story? And how are the tropes in this particular fable replicated across popular story for all ages?Continue reading “The Hare and the Tortoise”
I grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand, and occasionally visited The Christchurch Art Gallery. In the viewing room to the left of the entrance hall there was an especially memorable painting. Every now and then I come across a piece of art which takes my breath away, and this was one of the first.
When I say ‘memorable’, I don’t remember what this artwork was called or who painted it; the painting itself was memorable, for its hyperrealistic riverbank of greywacke. Each and every stone had been individually rendered. The entire canvas was covered in greywacke rocks, the iconic rock of New Zealand’s Canterbury plains. I couldn’t believe someone had taken the time to paint each and every stone so lovingly.Continue reading “Rocks, Stones, Paving and Concrete In Art”
Tawny Scrawny Lion is a Little Golden Book first published in 1952, written by Kathryn Jackson and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. The same team worked on The Saggy Baggy Elephant (1947).
This picture book is an interesting example — indeed, the peak example — of how storytellers for children must cast aside certain unpleasant food chain facts when anthropomorphising animals.
Specifically: lions cannot live on carrots. Carrot soup does not provide nearly enough calories required to live as a lion. Even when made with fish, a lion would need a hell of a lot of it.
Nor do rabbits eat fish. The fish in this story are not considered live, empathetic creatures. Unlike the land animals, their eyes are dots. (The lions and rabbits have human-like eyes, with ‘whites’ (yellows) indicating where they are looking.
Why is the tawny lion so scrawny even though he catches everything he chases? There is no realworld biochemical reason. This is classic fairytale physics, in line with the nonscientific cooling rates of the three differently sized bowls of porridge in Goldilocks And The Three Bears.
SETTING OF TAWNY SCRAWNY LION
At first I assumed Tawny Scrawny Lion is set in a utopian, picture book jungle, looked harder at the pictures and realised it was probably a savannah, then saw a Golden Book Video Classic called ‘Tawny Scrawny Lion’s Jungle Tales’ and realised the setting is meant to be a coded as a jungle. Compared to other picture book jungles, there is comparatively little typical jungle imagery. (Compare to The Saggy, Baggy Elephant, full of classic jungle imagery.)
The social world of Tawny Scrawny Lion starts out more like a real savannah/jungle (where larger carnivores eat smaller ones) and ends in a place completely divorced from a real world place. In any picture book starring animals, those animals will be anthropomorphised to some degree. Normally the storytellers pick a spot on that continuum and stay there, though animals in the same story are frequently positioned at different points on the anthropomorphising continuum.
The rabbits in this particular story are more civilised than the lion, who must become equally anthropomorphised before any of them can live in harmony. (The rabbits have access to bowls, spoons and a cauldron for cooking their carrot soup. They also have access to fishing lines and, most importantly, wear clothes, which are gendered.) Becoming more civilised (more like a human) is the lion’s main character arc. Tawny Scrawny Lion moves from wild animal to gentrified patriarch.
The poor old fish remain as foodstuffs. It’s clearly more difficult for humans to empathise with fish than with land mammals.
Tenggren’s illustrations are appropriately folk arty for this fantasy picture book world, with just the suggestion of savannah, and shapes placed on the page without an attempt at real world perspective.
The implicit ideology is clear; if animals could live more like (vegetarian) humans, the savannah would be a kinder, less brutal place.
This is what dates the book. Mindfully leaving vegetarian ideology aside, we now know how vital large animals are to an ecosystem. Taking wolves as an example, the reestablishment of just one pack of previously eradicatedwolves to an ecosystem can do an amazing amount of good… precisely because they hunt and kill. Lions are equally important.
STORY STRUCTURE OF TAWNY SCRAWNY LION
Once there was a tawny scrawny lion who chased monkeys on Monday—kangaroos on Tuesday—zebras on Wednesday—bears on Thursday—camels on Friday—and on Saturday, elephants!
So begins the funny, classic Golden story of a family of ten fat rabbits that teaches the hungry lion to eat carrot stew—so that he doesn’t eat them!marketing copy
The Tawny Scrawny Lion has a fantasy medical condition where the more animals he catches the scrawnier he becomes.
The lion seems content enough continuing to chase animals, probably never understanding what satiety feels like. The rabbits seem to understand that if they can persuade the lion to eat carrot soup, the benefits will be two-fold: The lion will feel more vigour and the rabbits will have saved all the animals further down the food chain (including themselves) from getting eaten.
Since lions eat rabbits, they are natural opponents.
Though this is left off the page, I imagine a belling the cat scenario in which the rabbits have a meeting, make a plan to invite the lion to change his diet, then invite him around to eat carrot soup.
But we only see the plan being carried out.
Anyone who knows anything about lions will be expecting disaster, but anyone who knows anything about Little Golden Books from the mid 20th century will know that this is a cosy story and the animal characters will be friends by the end.
The prose contains plenty of suspense. When the little rabbit stops to catch some fish ‘this is almost too much for the hungry lion’. The illustrations support the reader’s fear that the lion will lose control and gobble the little rabbits up.
Peak danger: four little rabbits ‘plumped themselves down in the lion’s lap’. Don’t you love the author’s use of ‘plump’? And the illustrator’s depiction of a wide open lion mouth, with those tiny, crazed pupils…
Turn the page and we learn that the carrot soup has worked as a magic potion to quell the lion of hunger. ‘And somehow, even when it was time to say goodnight, that lion wasn’t one bit hungry!’
The lion realises he feels much better eating carrot stew, albeit made with fish stock. He will give up hunting and from now on live the more civilised life of a stew eater…
… so long as the rabbits keep making it for him.
It’s true that large cats (or any wild animal) won’t hunt unless they are hungry. Humans are the only species who kill more than we need for our own sustenance.
So long as the rabbits keep feeding the lion that soup, and so long as it contains plenty of fish, maybe I can believe this happy scenario will continue forever.
It could be argued that this storybook world is so far removed from reality that young readers wouldn’t draw any connection between morality and diet. But that’s not how children’s stories work at all. The surface interpretation is clearly fantasy. Covert ideology carries a story’s resonance; in this case, that animals who eat animals further down the food chain are morally wrong, and until they mend their ways, they will lead an unhappy life.
Adults love a story for children in which enemies become friends. Over the second half of the 20th century The Tawny Scrawny Lion stood the test of time a popular picture book character and sequels followed. ‘Tawny Scrawny Lion’ was now ‘THE Tawny Scrawny Lion’.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
For more on Gustaf Tenngren, see the article on him at Animation Resources.
Australia has a uniquely trusting relationship with its police force. We might say the image of police here in Australia is based on a storybook image, one which is cultivated in white kids from the time we start reading children’s books.
The only feelings mankind has inspired in policemen are indifference and scorn.UN FLIC (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972)
Today I’ll look at some of the main ways writers and gatekeepers protect the image of the police officer as a patriarchal protector above reproach. This archetype is common in utopian stories for very young children and was especially prevalent in earlier Golden Ages of children’s literature.
The Storybook Policeman is just that — he is a man. Female officers are rarely seen in children’s stories. The trend towards avoiding police officers as saviours coincided with the reality of more female officers, which probably accounts for that. The number of female police officers in Australia has doubled over the last 20 years, but in America remains where Australia, New Zealand and England were back in the 1990s.
The real-world percentage of female officers is irrelevant to the Storybook Image, just as it was irrelevant in America in the wake of September 11, 2001. Susan Faludi writes about this extensively in her book The Terror Dream, but media outlets exclusively chose images of men saving women, even though a significant proportion of the first responders that day were women.
I don’t think there was any task that was performed down there by men that were not performed by women.Terri Tobin, Deputy Inspector of the New York Police Department
Another significant proportion of the public does not want to see women saving men, and won’t believe it even if they do see it. Faludi talks about ‘the myth of cowboy bluster and feminine frailty’, which must exist as a duo in order to make sense.
Not surprisingly, we see this dynamic play out in children’s books from earlier ages of children’s literature, in which children seek the help of kindly and trustworthy police men in times of need. These men stand omnisciently over proceedings and the children are free to roam, knowing that a strong man, the huntsman in Red Riding Hood’s woods, is only a scream away.
When we base our security on a mythical male strength that can only increase itself against a mythical female weakness — we should know that we are exhibiting the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural afflictionSusan Faludi, The Terror Dream
In books for children, the policeman is never far away. Roald Dahl deals with this fact knowingly in Danny The Champion Of The World, while at the same time fully utilising the trope:
At this point, pedalling grandly towards us on his bicycle, came the arm of the law in the shape of Sergeant Enoch Samways, resplendent in his blue uniform and his shiny silver buttons. It was always a mystery to me how Sergeant Samways could sniff out trouble wherever it was.Roald Dahl, Danny The Champion Of The World
The police car always at the ready is not limited to literature for the youngest audience. It’s a trope we see across all forms of storytelling. There are many police related tropes, and you can find them beautifully catalogued over at TV Tropes. In adult story we more often see the inversion — the useless or very human cop. Yet elements of the effective police force are there nonetheless — the willingness for cops to put rape tests forward for testing, the rapidity at which paperwork gets processed, calls returned. Though evil is rife in fictional adult policing, sheer ineptitude is vanishingly rare. Audiences do not enjoy watching ineptitude. We like our heroes and our villains to be agentic, to be motivated, to have a plan. We like to see them carry plans out.
It’s often said that the best cops would make the best criminals — by chance they’re working on the right side of the law. Crime drama makes the most of this. In The Wire, Jimmy McNulty is a good cop because he has an intuitive understanding of what motivates the criminals he’s working with. The audience sees Jimmy himself go against the rules and resisting the hierarchy that exists within the police force.
The Storybook Policeman is also white. This trope is yet another way in which picture books serve white people and their children. A Black parent cannot afford to teach their children that police are the benevolent patriarchs to call in any emergency.
I’m reminded of the episode of British TV cartoon Peppa Pig about spiders. The message: Don’t be scared of spiders. Spiders won’t hurt you. This reassurance served its purpose for children who wouldn’t leave Britain, but did not serve Australian kids at all. Australian kids need to be scared of spiders. The episode was not aired on Australian television. Likewise, the Storybook Police Archetype only works for some kids and remains actively detrimental to others.
When the Storybook Police is made into an animal, we see the identifying features: The hat and the baton.
White parents have been heavily invested in protecting the image of the Storybook Police Archetype. At times, in America, it has reached ridiculous levels. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Stieg depicts police as pigs. For this reason the picture book has been banned intermittently.
How Do Contemporary Authors Deal With Police?
Apart from the very real political issues, there are some storytelling pitfalls to avoid when storytellers bring police into a children’s story which, by definition, should be about kids, with the action driven by kids, and problems solved by kids.
“Why don’t they just call the police?” That’s exactly what a children’s writer does not want the reader to think. Police therefore create a problem for writers similar to the problem of parents and caring adults in general: Why don’t these children tell a parent?
It’s easy enough to get parents out of the way, but aren’t police meant to be on call 24/7? Enid Blyton included numerous policemen in her stories and used them where it was convenient. But sometimes she tried to get rid of them.
Although Blyton tried to get rid of the police, leaving it up to Julian to lead the other children to victory, she didn’t always manage this successfully:
The plot has some small holes, as often happens in these children adventures. For example, once they discover the kidnapped person, the children do not go straight to the police. A reason is given for that, but it did not seem very convincing.from a consumer review of the Ring o Bells Mystery
Enid Blyton can hardly be called contemporary, so let’s take a look at how Kate DiCamillo deals with police in her Mercy Watson series. The Mercy Watson series is set in 1950s-esque suburbia, functioning as a spoof of domestic bliss. Kate DiCamillo avoids problematic police altogether, but she does it by replacing them with firefighters.
These two firefighters function identically to the policemen duos of Enid Blyton’s era and are called at the end of a story to finish off what has already been set in motion by the child and childlike characters.
To bring rescue teams too early to a children’s story would function unsuccessfully as deus ex machina, and agency removed from the child heroes. For various other examples of how police officers have been used in children’s stories see the following:
- Walter The Farting Dog in which a dog farts really stinkily and knocks out two Storybook Burglars. The police arrive immediately to deal with the burglars.
- The Tale of Pigling Bland or The Tale of Ginger and Pickles by Beatrix Potter from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature. In the first example the police officer is roaming the country roads waiting for crime to happen. In the second example, the police officer is a creepy doll.
- “A Good Tip For Ghosts” by Paul Jennings uses the police officer as storyteller.
- Junie B. Jones And The Stupid Smelly Bus, in which Junie gets a lecture from the police officer
- “Lamb To The Slaughter” by Roald Dahl is regularly studied in high schools. In this story, the trickster murderer fools police officers, who are guided by their bellies. Though there are hints of bumbling policemen in children’s literature, by the time readers have hit the teenage years, their storybook cops are no longer the trustworthy archetypes who always know what’s what. Even in his children’s books, Dahl avoided the Storybook Police Archetype. See Matilda for an example in which police play a peripheral part — they exist to be avoided. Dahl had a mistrust of authority of all kinds, and was a large part of the movement towards subversive, darker middle grade fiction.
Header illustration by Mary Petty (1899-1976), 1943