Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Increasingly Cringe-Worthy Saga of Woofus Continues

Last week, I introduced you to a (perhaps) accidentally racist children’s book, Woofuswhich I described as “justifiably forgotten.” In a play-by-play of the first section of the book, I told you about poor Woofus, who is the only black puppy in his litter and, as a result, is the recipient of ridicule from his unenlightened human family. I promised you that the next section of the book would be even worse, and just in case you didn’t believe me, here it is.

The family gets ready for the picnic

Next, our perfect 1940s family prepares for a picnic trip in the woods. This, of course, requires peanut butter and lettuce sandwiches (look carefully at both the sandwiches and the ingredients spread on the table), as well as tomatoes and bananas, all packed lovingly into the basket by the 6-year-old girl, who dumps everything in at one end without looking.

The children ask their Daddy if they can bring Woofus with them, and Daddy thinks it over and agrees, reasoning that “he was getting to be too big to keep fenced in all the time.” This implies poor Woofus never gets walks, likely because the family is ashamed to be seen with him. Secretly, the father probably hopes that “funny-looking” Woofus will get lost in the woods.

Pathetic black kitten in a tree

When they arrive in the woods, Woofus is so relieved to have freedom of movement that he runs around, barking. The family’s response, of course, is to laugh because he’s acting “like such a silly dog.” Grateful not to be penned in a back yard? How foolish!

Woofus takes root at the foot of a tree (see what I did there?) and barks so persistently that Bobbie runs over to see what’s going on. At first, he scolds Woofus for the disturbance but then hears a “weak little ‘Me-ow’ from the treetop.” He sees a little black kitten. Aww! Daddy agrees to rescue the wee thing. It may be black, but it is awfully tiny and cute.

Family heads home from woods

Mother and Daddy agree to take the lost little kitten home, although Bobbie wonders aloud if Woofus will like the kitten. Daddy replies that Woofus is smart and that, because he discovered the kitten, they would probably become very good friends. (Though secretly, I believe he’s masking his disappointment that Woofus beat him back to the car so that he couldn’t pretend the dog got accidentally left behind.)

Meanwhile, Jean’s love for the new kitten (which seemingly grows in her arms to nearly full-grown size) has turned her hair from bright blonde to light brunette.

Family ponders a name for the kitten

Upon returning from the woods, the family engages in their favorite activity: pretending to be magazine models. No, not really. They just happen to adopt very dramatic poses while pondering what to name their new kitten. They are so busy thinking they don’t notice that Jean has changed her hair color again, this time going for strawberry blonde.

Daddy suggests… Goofus. Because it rhymes with Woofus, of course. But the rest of the family rejects this name, probably because it’s not offensive enough. How do I know this? Because they readily accept Bobbie’s proposal, and I quote, “Let’s call him Tar Baby because he is as black as tar.”

The rest of the family agree this is a very good name for the little black kitten that Woofus found.

So… still on the fence about whether this book is just a teensie-eensie bit racist? I thought not.

Woofus looks thoughtful

Far from being pleased, Woofus is actually jealous of Tar Baby, who is allowed to climb trees and fences and run into the house, while Woofus has to stay in “his own private dog yard.” This implies that Woofus doesn’t even get the run of the entire backyard but only a “special” fenced-off portion of it. Poor Woofus. If he wanted to be treated better, he should have tried harder to be born blonde like the other puppies in his litter. Then he could have been given away to a family that treats dogs better.

Kitten taunts Woofus

While Tar Baby is busy taunting him, Woofus once more internalizes his problems, dreaming of things he might do so that he would not only be “a big dog and a woolly dog, but a very brave dog.” Maybe that would finally make his family love him.

I should note that, while I was reading this story aloud to KFP, I opted to insert a sentence, saying, “The family decided to change the kitten’s name to Chocolate, because Mommy loved chocolate.” I made this choice because I was worried that KFP would repeat the kitten’s name somewhere, like at preschool or the library, not realizing it was considered a racist slur. This turned out to be a good choice, since Tar Baby would be mentioned by name 13 more times in the story.

Children are awakened by the storm

At this stage in the story, Daddy actually stands up for Woofus, not only reiterating that he’s smart but also asserting that since Woofus is such a good dog, he should be let out of his yard more often. Since there’s no indication that means giving Woofus walks on a leash, maybe he’s secretly hoping the dog will use the opportunity to find a more accepting home.

Then, a nighttime storm, complete with thunder and lightning, makes Bobbie and Jean sit up in their shared bed. The storm is so loud, it has turned Jean’s hair blonde again. Although they can hear the animals crying in distress outside the window, they don’t permit them to come inside. “I wonder if they are getting wet,” Bobbie ponders aloud. Hmm. I wonder.

Silly Woofus should have realized that the only dogs allowed inside this home are the decorative dogs that adorn headboards.

Woofus and Tar Baby curling up together

In the morning, the family discovers the animals huddled for safety together in the dog house. Woofus woofs and woofs, which Bobbie and Jean interpreted as him “telling them that he and Tar Baby were friends.”

Really, he is probably telling them off for leaving him outside during a thunderstorm.

Woofus views his newly painted dog house

Later that day, Daddy has “the painter” add Tar Baby’s name on the dog house, along with “Woofus.” Yes, the family has a painter on retainer but can only afford one bed for the children.

Bobbie and Jean are very pleased with the new sign, as are Tar Baby and Woofus (who after all, can’t read). They are so proud of the sign that they can’t imagine that anybody could ever object to it, and they can’t imagine why, 70 years later, their book will be out of print while that silly “Pat the Bunny” book will still be selling millions.

You would think this would be the end of the story, but it’s only the end of the second act. Woofus still needs to achieve his main goal: true acceptance by the family. He tells himself once more, “I am a big dog. I am a woolly dog, and I am a smart dog. But I must be good and brave so that Bobbie and Jean will always be glad they kept me.”

Will Woofus prove he’s worth keeping?

Will Tar Baby mew pathetically some more?

Will the illustrator ever draw any actual action?

… to be continued…

The Mommy Files: Unsolicited Feedback Rocks!

Other Mothered actresses
Maggie Rogers (left) and Christine Walters in an “Other Mothered” segment

This morning, while I unpacked clean laundry from the laundry basket — only because it was time to fill it with dirty laundry again — my phone pinged to let me know I had an e-mail. In true Pavlovian fashion, I immediately checked it. It was not, as I expected, a Facebook comment, piling on more congratulations for a friend celebrating her anniversary (I really ought to stop following that conversation), or another reminder from Peapod that if I place one more grocery order before Halloween I’ll earn two free deliveries (I began having groceries delivered by Peapod when KFP was 2 and used to scream bloody murder in grocery stores, and I still occasionally use Peapod when I have a busy week). No, instead of any expected, ordinary e-mail, I got something completely awesome: a comment from writer/comedian Christine Walters, whose “Other Mothered” segments on Nick Mom I’d referenced in my recent post, “You’ve Been Other Mothered.”

She commented to say that she’s glad that I like her segments and to point out there’s a new “Other Mothered” video segment on the site, called “The Science Fair.” I just checked it out, and you should, too. This one has only one line (uttered by Christine) and is a classic comedy moment. When you’re done watching that, check out the rest of the “Other Mothered” segments, and you’ll see why I love them so much. I guarantee, if you’re a parent, you’ll find at least one of them you swear was taken from your personal experience.

Maybe for you, like Christine’s comment did for me, they’ll bring some smiles to your laundry day.

Woofus: A (Justifiably) Forgotten Children’s Book

Cover of Woofus

As part of our bedtime ritual, I read about four short children’s books to my son, whose online nickname is Kung Fu Panda. Last week, I wanted some variety, so I grabbed a book off the “special” shelf, which is off-limits for KFP, reserved for books that we’d like to keep in good condition (signed by the author, delicate, antique, and the like). The book I selected was “Woofus” by Florence Sarah Winship, illustrated by Jane Curry (Whitman Publishing, Racine, Wisconsin, 1944). My dad owned it as a child, and he gave it to us after KFP was born, along with a couple of other vintage books too delicate to be manhandled by a toddler. Inside the front cover, there’s a hand-written dedication to my father from his aunt, who gave it to him for “Xmas 1948.”

What a lovely piece of family history, I thought, as I turned the page and began reading the story. Keep in mind, this book was published just four years after the classic children’s book, “Pat the Bunny” by Dorothy Kunhardt. I looked forward to a delightful combination of 1940s artwork and a quaint story. Well, I was half right.

Title page

The title page announces: “This is the story of Woofus, a smooth little black-haired puppy who grew up to be a great, big, woolly dog.” A rather misshapen puppy with large eyes and a round, shiny nose sits in front of (naturally) a white picket fence. He has a red ball that is so small  it looks about the size of a large strawberry. His ears protrude oddly from his head, as if they’re just tacked on. But perhaps that’s what puppies looked like in the 1940s.

Woofus's litter

On the next page, we’re introduced to the litter mates of Woofus, who are all “golden-brown puppies,” They are also all wearing red bows around their necks, while Woofus conspicuously lacked one on the previous page. Apparently, only blonde puppies get bows. More strikingly, it doesn’t seem the least bit possible that they come from the same litter as the puppy on the previous page. Perhaps someone ought to tell Woofus he’s adopted?

The rather lengthy text on the facing page reveals that, when visitors come to see the litter, they say, “Aren’t those cute little puppies! But oh, look at that funny little black one.” Woofus is a little sensitive about this, because he realizes they are laughing at him because he is black and not brown like the others. Hrmm. OK. Well, I’m sure I’m just reading too much into that, right? Of course, all the golden-brown puppies get adopted, while the kids are stuck with that “funny black” puppy, whom they name Woofus because he says “Woof-woof” while the other puppies say “Bow-wow.” I guess black puppies speak in a different dialect…

Woolly Woofus

Woofus is smart enough to realize that nobody wants him, but he tells himself that he will be a “great, big, brave dog” and that his family will be glad they kept him. They still, however, give him balls to play with that are small enough to be choking hazards. Purely accidental, I’m sure.

As Woofus gets bigger, the book relates, his black coat gets “longer and woollier.” Again, I’m sure we’re not supposed to read anything into the fact that the texture of his fur is so different from that of the little blonde puppies. Of course, his family finds his fur to be freaking hilarious: “One day when Bobbie and Jean came down to the kennel with their mother, they laughed and laughed and laughed because Woofus looked as though he had on a woolly bonnet and woolly stockings.”

Again, Woofus realizes they’re laughing at him and tells himself, “People laugh at me now, but some day I will not only be a big brave dog, but I will be a big handsome woolly dog.” You go, Woofus. Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.

White folks

White folks laughing at Woofus

The book continues: “Woofus was right. He did grow up to be a great big wooly dog. But still people laughed at him.” As is evident from the picture above, they would put on their Sunday best to peer over the fence at him and laugh and laugh with their oddly identical mouths.

Still, our optimistic hero dreams of the day that he will prove himself to be a brave dog and “Bobbie and Jean and their mother and daddy [will] be proud of me.” Makes you want to pat him softly on the head, doesn’t it?

When the story continues, Woofus gets a chance to prove himself by rescuing a teeny-tiny cat from a tree… who happens to be black. Go ahead. Tell yourself this book couldn’t possibly get any more offensive. You will be wrong.

Will Woofus prove himself brave enough to make up for being black?

Will the family be more accepting of a wee black kitten?

Could they possibly pick a worse name for an animal than Woofus? 

… to be continued…

Mommy Files: Flying New Skies

Fun on the Slide
My son at the Aviation Play Center

I swore I wasn’t going to be that mother: the one with the screaming toddler who whined and cried during the entire flight. And yet there I was, with a shrieking nearly-3-year-old yelling, “I want to go home. I want Daddy!”

We’d prepared for this trip: We’d read books about flying on planes, and we’d talked for weeks beforehand about the stages of the trip. We’d even bought my son his own Spider-Man backpack, which he helped pack with toys and activities for the plane.

Everything went smoothly at first. My son was interested in everything we saw as we walked through the airport to get our boarding pass. My husband, who was dropping us off, saw us to the security checkpoint, and my little guy was cheerfully kissing him bye-bye when my husband observed, “He has a diaper.”

As we backtracked to the bathrooms, our son began to object. He insisted he wanted Daddy to change his diaper, but my husband didn’t feel comfortable doing it in the men’s room, since the little guy is now too big to change on the changing tables, and my husband wasn’t as comfortable changing him on the floor as I was.

So over his objections, I pulled my son into the women’s room, while he was shouting, “I want Daddy! I want Daddy to change me!” I worried I’d be confused for a kidnapper, so I talked gently to him the whole time, assuring him that Daddy was waiting outside but that I had to change his diaper first.

Then, my son freshly changed, we returned to the security checkpoint, said our “bye-byes” without tears, and proceeded through security. But my son cried again when I took off his light-up Spider-Man shoes, until a TSA agent dashed over and told us that children under 12 could keep their shoes on. If only I’d thought to check on that ahead of time.

If I had it to do over, I’d also think twice about what we did next. It seemed like a blessing: an Aviation Play Center where little ones could blow off steam before boarding their flights. There should have been a warning: May be addictive to toddlers. Within minutes, my outgoing boy had made friends with a slightly older boy, and they were following each other around the play area: alternately climbing the steps into the play control tower, sliding down, and then running across to the kid-sized plane — complete with passenger seats — to pretend to be co-pilots. The other boy wore Batman shoes, and I giggled at the instant bonding between two would-be superheroes.

He sure did seem to be having fun for a while. I’ve even got photographs to prove it, showing him sliding happily down the red plastic slide.

Fast-forward 15 or 20 minutes, and the scene was drastically different. First, his newfound friend left to board a plane with his family. Then, I told my son gently it was time to head towards ours. The whole time we were walking to the gate and the whole time we waited in line, he was caught up in the sort of crying he does whenever we leave someplace he associates with fun: whether it’s a swimming pool or a park or, in this case, an indoor playground. If I’d known that was coming, I would have skipped the playground and headed straight for the gates.

I also would have bought a bottle of water in one of the airport shops before we got on the plane. I didn’t realize at the time that, while you can’t take liquids through security, they will gladly allow you to carry on a water bottle purchased in one of the stores after clearing security. So after my son’s tears had dried, and we were boarding the plane, he asked me for a drink of water. But I could only tell him we’d have to wait a little. Waiting is not in an 3-year-old’s vocabulary.

As we squeezed by the other person in our row, a kindly older woman, I explained the reason behind my son’s renewed tears. Without hesitation, she offered me the unopened bottle she herself had brought onto the plane. Grateful beyond words, I opened the bottle and poured it into my son’s sippy cup, only to hear him complain that the water was too cold. I told him that it would warm up soon and that he needed to be grateful, because somebody had given him her water. He seemed about to cry again but then took another sip and quieted instead.

For most of the first leg of our journey to Detroit, he was relatively content, until he tired of the toys, books and stickers I’d brought to entertain him. I made another mistake, promising him train videos, after learning we could get Internet on the flight. This was before I realized how time-consuming it would be to actually deliver on such a promise.

First, I had to ask our very accommodating seatmate to stand up so that I could grab my laptop from the overhead compartment. Then I had to start the computer and seek out the information I needed to sign on. I had just completed the credit card payment and was waiting for the computer to connect when the announcement came over the PA, telling us we had to power down all of our electronic devices. And while I don’t think the resulting disappointment is why my son threw up on the way back down, it certainly didn’t help that he was crying bitterly and gulping so much air.

I was immediately grateful for the fact that he had rejected all efforts that day to feed him, sticking entirely to water. Coming back up, it was practically the same, just a little warmer. As I clutched my crying boy to me, he and I were soon soaked. Only after we’d landed, and I could be sure he was done, I did a quick change on the seat, putting him into the emergency change of clothes tucked into my diaper bag. This meant, of course, we stopped at the first store selling T-shirts to buy something clean, just in case we needed another backup shirt (I’d brought two pairs of emergency pants in my carry-on, but only one emergency shirt). That is why, on this October afternoon so many months later, he is wearing that Navy blue Detroit T-shirt as we bump along sidewalks, heading home from the park.

The trip, or at least that first leg of it, was a real learning experience. I thought that, after having endured the “baby boot camp” of our first few weeks with a newborn, that after helping him learn to walk and pick up things, that after teaching him language so that he could express his desires, that things would suddenly get easier. This experience taught me you can never sit back, never relax, because there’s always going to be new challenges.

I also learned that, no matter how much time you spend looking up information on how to plan a trip with a toddler; no matter how many people you ask for advice; and no matter how many people offer unsolicited advice, you will always run into challenges you could not anticipate. You will always have to make decisions on the fly. And they will not always be wise decisions or well-thought-out. A lot of times, they will be emotional and wrong. And then, you’ll have to find a way to turn things around.

Ultimately, that is a mother’s job: to make the hard decisions, to suck up disappointment and embarrassment like a used sponge, to keep pushing forward, whether covered in your child’s stomach contents or simply trying to shush him in a crowded airport. And if, like me, you are writer raised by a family of storytellers, you have one consolation: at least you’ll have a story to tell.