The Poky Little Puppy was first published in 1942. It’s written by Janette Sebring Lowrey and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, and it’s toted as the all-time best-selling hard-cover children’s book in the US. Number one, sure, it’s been around a long time. But also, as far as delivering a thought provoking and feel-good story goes, it stands strong in being deserving of such popularity. I like this book. And, it was one of my father’s favorites. So this post is for you, pops.
Published during WWII, The Poky Little Puppy can be alot of things. True, in some ways it is bound by it’s time. Their never-seen mother, the enforcer of rules and punishment, is akin to the Disney housewife of 40s, always baking and scolding, easily imagined in a yellow flower print dress even though she’s a dog. And the narrative has a distinctly Bambi-esque tone. And dessert is allowed as an appropriate reward/punishment for behavior. So while it’s 1942 in those ways, it’s also distinctly NOT 1942 in others. While the outside world waves around posters that mock other races in their war-enduced xenophobic hysteria, The Poky Little Puppy begins with this line: “Five little puppies dug a hole under the fence and went for a walk in the wide, wide world.” Now there’s a refreshing start.
My father’s favorite image was always of the puppy looking at the strawberry.
In his memory, the strawberry was HUGE. And the way he says poky little puppy, with a strong exaggeration of the plosiveness of the P’s… well, it’s the winsomeness of his tone that makes me love hearing him. When you listen to him think on it, you can imagine how thrilling this story might be to a child. You have a clever puppy, a stand in for the reader himself. He does and sees exciting and fun things via disobedience. And because he is clever, he gets his cake and eats it too. You feel triumph for your hero. But troublingly, this scheme never could have worked had the poky puppy not thrown his siblings under the bus. So when, tete a tete, they get him right back, you feel simultaneous senses of sadness and justice done. Our hero was on top of the world. And then he wasn’t. And you liked it when he was. And you understand why he wasn’t. And you’re torn.
The Poky Little Puppy is a complicated story. There is no simple message, and I’m willing to believe that that’s why it’s been so popular. Parents feel like the rules win, kids feel like it can easily be better to cleverly break them, there’s adventure and heartbreak, and all in all, who knows which is best? Certainly not avoiding adventure. And certainly not being anything other than poky. And certainly not going without dessert. As my father’s favorite line goes, “So the poky little puppy had to go to bed without a single bite of shortcake, and he felt very sorry for himself.”
Felt very sorry for himself indeed.