In one of my most recent stories, I shared some of our favorite children’s book authors.
Over the past two weeks, I introduced you to a justifiably overlooked children’s book, Woofus, published in 1944. I acquired the book from my dad, and it was one of his childhood books. In last week’s installment, the second section showed us that what initially seemed to be accidental racism might in fact be a wee bit intentional. That is, unless naming a black cat “Tar Baby” was considered perfectly acceptable in 1944.
Then again, this was the same society that, as chronicled in the James Lilek book, Mommy Knows Worse, thought that placing babies in cage-like cribs suspended outside windows was a great way to get them fresh air.
Now, in this final installment, the chronicle of Woofus concludes (in both dramatic and anticlimactic fashion).
In the story so far, Woofus was born black and “woolly” to a litter full of golden-brown pups. Since no one wanted him, the family was unable to give him away, and he became their favorite object of ridicule. (It has just occurred to me that Woofus lacks a mother, implying that she was given away along with the puppies, perhaps because she had transgressed the puppy code by giving birth to a “funny-looking” dog.)
While on a pic-nic in the woods, Woofus finds a lonely black kitten, who is adopted by the family and then dubbed Tar Baby, presumably so it wouldn’t get too uppity.
As the third act begins, the author laments, “But poor Woofus! He forgot that he must be a good dog.” A neighbor, Mrs. Jones, calls to complain that “Woofus has ruined my vegetable garden.” Mother expresses disbelief, but Mrs. Jones is sure it is “Woofus and no other dog.” Because only black, woolly dogs would ruin a vegetable garden.
Mother’s chestnut-brown eyes grow extremely wide at this news, and even the bow on the back of her apron stands up in alarm.
Nosy Mrs. Jones has company. The same afternoon, Mrs. Smith calls to inform Mother that Woofus has “pulled her clean clothes off the line and dragged them in the dirt.” Again, Mother expresses disbelief, but Mrs. Smith says she is certain. As evidenced from the illustration, she gets a lot of pleasure from relaying this information. No doubt, she’s just looking for an excuse to use her old-fashioned phone, which hasn’t been ringing much lately. In all likelihood, she doesn’t even have a clothes line.
So the entire family takes turns scolding Woofus: first Bobbie, then Jean, then Mother and Daddy. This is, after all, what passes for entertainment in this family. Woofus hangs his head in shame and repeats his mantra: “I am a big dog and a woolly dog. I am a smart dog. I must be a good dog. I must be a brave dog, too.”
Clearly, he believes in the power of positive affirmations. Stuart Smalley would be proud.
The next afternoon, the family discovers that Woofus is missing. Only Tar Baby is sitting in the kennel yard “all alone and not purring nor looking very happy.” Woofus doesn’t come home for dinner, and the family is sad. Hmm. I can’t imagine why Woofus would be staying away from them, after being yelled at by all four family members without any clear idea of what he’d done wrong. I mean, he came home after a fun day of digging and laundry snatching, and they yelled at him for just walking into the yard!
At this point in the book, I began to suspect that the writer and illustrator had worked completely independently. I believe the process worked like this: The illustrator brought in a portfolio of watercolors showing a family and their two pets. The publishing house liked the work, but especially liked the fact that the artist was willing to sell them the whole package for nearly nothing. They then commissioned a writer to look at the illustrations and turn them into a story. “I know these pictures are a little dull, so use your words to make the story exciting,” they said. “And add just a hint of racism. Children like that.”
The family is eating dinner when the telephone rings again. Mother answers it (since answering a phone is, of course, women’s work and she was already up from the table, serving everybody seconds while her own plate of soup sits untouched at her place). She comes back and reports cheerfully that “Tommy Jones fell in the creek and Woofus jumped in and pulled him out and saved him. So Mrs. Jones is not angry about her vegetable garden any more.” You would think that such an exciting scene would have made a better illustration than a view of the family eating tomato soup and mini quiches. But you are not a publisher sitting on a portfolio of generic family illustrations.
Jean is so happy to hear the news that her delight shows in her bright blue eyes. She tries hard not to think about the fact that both her mommy and daddy have brown eyes. Bobbie keeps telling her she’s adopted, but Bobbie is wrong. She resolves to take out her frustration on Woofus when he comes home later.
Just as the family returns to eating their dinner, the phone rings again. This time it is Mrs. Smith. Mother reports, “She says Woofus is a very brave dog to rescue Tommy Jones from the creek. She is not angry about her wash being pulled off the line now.”
Bobbie and Jean say in unison, “I wish Woofus would come home.” Mother, Jean and Bobbie look out the window eagerly. You can tell from their expressions that something very exciting is happening out there. Don’t you wish you could see it, too?
Quite proud of himself, Woofus bounds happily home, watched by a slightly anthropomorphic rabbit with large eyes.
Woofus is given a big bone for his bravery. In deference, Tar Baby doesn’t “try to even get a smell of it” but just sits, watching Woofus and purring. Of course, kittens don’t normally gnaw on giant bones, but don’t let that intrude with your enjoyment of the story.
Bobbie and Jean come down to the kennel and finally give Woofus the acceptance he’s been seeking, telling him “what a good, brave dog” he is and how proud they are to have him.
In his funny dog-talk, he responds, “Woof-woof — woof. Woof-woof.”
On the final page, the author translates his message. In dog language, we’re told, that means, “I am a big dog and I am a woolly dog. I am a smart dog and I try to be a good dog. Now I know I am a brave dog.” Woofus chews on his very special big bone, as the children regard him from a safe distance.
He might be a brave dog, and they’re happy to have him in the family, but they still wouldn’t dream of petting him.
And now you have had the same reaction that literally dozens of children had in the late 1940s, when given this book by their well-meaning aunts: unblinking silence.
Sure enough, the next night at bedtime, the little kids were clamoring for a bedtime book. “Mommy, could you read me Pat the Bunny again?”
Last week, I introduced you to a (perhaps) accidentally racist children’s book, Woofus, which 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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…