The latest in a series of occasional posts on classic picture books for young children
The Poky Little Puppy: A Little Golden Book Classic. By Janette Sebring Lowrey. Illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. Random House/Golden Books, 24 pp., $2.99. Ages 5 and under.
By Janice Harayda
The Poky Little Puppy is the all-time bestselling children’s hardcover book in English, the trade journal Publishers Weekly reported in 2001. Whether that report is accurate is debatable — others have made a similar claim for The Tale of Peter Rabbit — but the longevity of the book is remarkable by any measure.
First published in 1942, The Poky Little Puppy was one of the original 12 Little Golden Books that sold for 25 cents. And like other Golden Books that remain in print, this one retains the distinctive design elements of the series: the nearly square format; the patterned golden spine; and the space on the inside front cover for children to write their names after the words: “This Little Golden Book belongs to …” The book also has paper so lightweight that an Amazon reader complained of its flimsiness but that, in fact, has important benefits: It makes the book easy for children to carry and helps to keep the cost to a remarkably low $2.99 in hardcover.
If they remember nothing else about The Poky Little Puppy, countless baby boomers recall it as the story of a dawdling puppy who had to go to bed without strawberry shortcake. But this book is also about the joy of exploring the natural world and its bounty: “a fuzzy caterpillar,” “a quick green lizard,” and other creatures.
Five puppies dig a hole under a fence around their yard and set out to enjoy “the wide, wide world.” But a poky little brown-and-white puppy dawdles while his siblings race ahead. And for two days, this works to his advantage: His swifter siblings get home first and are punished for digging the hole under the fence by their mother, who sends them to bed without dessert, so he gets to eat their rice pudding and chocolate custard. On the third day, the poky little puppy pays for his dallying: His quicker siblings get home first again and after finding their mother upset about another hole they have dug under the fence, fill it in. She rewards them with strawberry shortcake, and they leave none for him.
The Poky Little Puppy might have trouble finding a publisher today. Some of its themes conflict with the orthodoxies of child-rearing of 21st century, when psychologists instruct adults not to label children “poky” or “shy” or to withhold food as punishment (or even to use the word “punishment” instead of “discipline”). But this book has endured in part because it is not bibliotherapy but a good story. The talking animals tell children right away that this is a fantasy, not a slice of life.
No doubt many parents have used The Poky Little Puppy to teach the consequences of dallying or ignoring boundaries. But the book works as a straight adventure story. Gustave Tenggren’s gentle pictures soften the blow of the loss of the shortcake. And the puppy radiates such sweetness that no one could think him intentionally wayward – which is just what many children want their parents to think when they miss the school bus.
Best line: The first line: “Five little puppies dug a hole under the fence and went for a walk in the wide, wide world.” And the next-to-last: “So the poky little puppy had to go to bed without a single bite of shortcake, and he felt very sorry for himself.” And it’s great that a child can claim the book emotionally by writing his or her name in the space provided on the inside cover. Many recent picture books are so pretty they discourage children from writing their names in them, and that’s part of the problem with them.
Worst line: None. But see the caution below.
Caveat lector: Avoid gussied-up editions of this book — such as the one Random House describes as “upscale” – that cost more than $2.99. Part of the appeal of the Golden Books has always lay in their small, predictable format.
Published: 1942 (first edition) and many subsequent reprints.
Other classic picture books reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews include Horton Hatches the Egg, Millions of Cats, Madeline, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Where the Wild Things Are, The Backward Day, The Story of Ferdinand and Flat Stanley.
One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the winners of the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books for children or adults on Monday, March 16, 2009. A list of the finalists appeared on Feb. 27 and passages from books on the list on Feb. 26.