Any work of literature is an agreement between writer and reader. There are expectations and norms. While writers can and do experiment with these conventions to create great art, the reader usually needs to feel that there is a certain amount of trust in order to read with enjoyment.
The first few paragraphs of a work of fiction often establish the parameters of the experience. The reader meets main characters, is given clues as to over-arching themes, and the relationship between reader and writer is created.
I love the classics of children’s literature, which can mean anything from a Little Golden Book to The Victorian Book of You Are Going To Hell if You Are Bad. The Little Golden Books are easy targets because they are recognizable, accessible, and often messed up in that “totally acceptable and not at all shocking because I never thought of it like that” sort of way. We 40-somethings grew up with them. Hell, our parents grew up with them. So books like “The Pokey Little Puppy” just sit there in our psyches, absorbed and not questioned.
But this book has issues. Like, issues that need therapy and medication.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In the first two pages of “The Pokey Little Puppy,” the reader is presented with a multitude of possible themes common to stories crafted for small children: appreciation of nature, the importance of rules in a civil society, and watching out for each other.
The pages that follow show the reader that none of that is relevant, and no meaning or lesson whatsoever can be gleaned from the words.
Our story centers around five little puppies. They escape their compound by digging a hole under a fence so they can go exploring, but one puppy lags behind. They find him nosing around in the grass at the bottom of the hill.
The reader thinks, ah, this is a lesson in stopping to smell the roses, you know, don’t hurry and rush about so much that you miss out on experiences that can enrich your life. Or it’s going to be about breaking the rules and the consequences that come from that.
But the puppy has smelled rice pudding, so they rush home for dinner and dessert.
But their mother is mad because they dug a hole and escaped, so they don’t get dessert.
But the pokey little puppy gets to eat all the rice pudding because he poked around again and arrived home after everyone was asleep.
What’s the lesson here? It’s not “stop and smell the roses” or “make sure your buddies are safe,” it’s more like “Be slow and greedy.” Also, “desserts don’t need to be refrigerated because dogs don’t have refrigerators.” And “don’t listen to your mother.”
They repeat their digging and exploring the next day despite a big sign telling them not to dig holes under the fence, and the pokey little puppy again lags behind.
This time, the puppy hears someone SCOOPING CHOCOLATE CUSTARD INTO THEIR BOWLS.
Who is this puppy, Spiderman? Sherlock Holmes?
The whole no-dessert-bad-puppies routine is repeated, and again, the pokey little puppy comes home after everyone is asleep and eats the unrefrigerated dessert. All of it. Slowness is rewarded again.
The whole routine repeats a third day, and this time, the puppy sees a strawberry, from which they draw the unlikely conclusion for the existence of strawberry shortcake.
Again, bad-puppies-no-dessert, but this time, they waited until their mother was asleep and went out and filled up the hole, so their mother, who really wasn’t sleeping, gave them their strawberry shortcake because they were so good.
So when the pokey little puppy came home, his siblings were just finishing the strawberry shortcake, and he didn’t get anything. Because he was so slow.
This is a book in which no one learns and no one is truly enriched. It’s like Game of Thrones without all the death and sex and humans.
“The Pokey Little Puppy” is over 70-years-old, and to date, over 15 million copies have been sold. Meaning 15 million people have been confused by this book, and I really hope that this confusion is benefiting some long-lost relative of Ms. Sebring Lowry.
*illustrator of many, many Golden Books, among other things. (The moment I read more about him, I bought a copy of the Canterbury Tales LITTLE GOLDEN BOOK EDITION. THE LITTLE GOLDEN BOOK OF THE CANTERBURY TALES. )