Rites of Passage: Potty Training by the Picture Book


Find the baby on the close stool! From the manuscript, “The Life of a Baby,” by A. B. ca. 1839. (Cotsen 46434).

In theory and practice, the non-fiction picture book has an important role to play teaching skills and competencies in a concrete way.   Picture books have naturally  became a part of the late twentieth-century campaign to make the critical transition from messy blithe incontinence to conscious, hygienic elimination trauma-free. While it no longer seems desirable to motivate the gaining of control over bodily functions by associating it with shame or guilt,  the attempt to be upbeat about a semi-taboo subject can be interesting, to say the least.

Taro Gomi took a strictly factual approach: every living thing eats, so we’re all one big happy family when it comes to getting rid of the by-products.  First published as part of the “Masterpieces of the Friends of Science” series in 1977, the English-language translation rights to Minna uchi were acquired by Kane/Miller in 1993.  Gomi’s  truthful but slyly humorous approach caused a stir when Everyone Poops came out in the United States, but once the initial shock wore off, it become something of a cult classic.  Cotsen has the English- and Chinese-language translations, but not the Japanese original.


Double-page spread from Taro Gomi, Everyone Poops. Translated by Amanda Mayer Stinchecum, Brooklyn, NY: Kane/Miller, 18th printing, c1993 (Cotsen 24016).

When Alonah Frankel was a young mother with a son, she wrote a book to help other parents toilet-train their boys.  The first of her many children’s books in Hebrew, “Sir ha- Sirim” [The Potty of Potties] became an instant best-seller in Israel when published in 1975.   It was issued in 1980 under the title Once Upon a Potty in the United States and after that, went on to find an international audience.  The version for girls was added in the 1990s. The audio-tape and cartoon versions have bolstered sales in the US. Written from the point of view of the mother, who has to do the dirty work, she nicely but firmly explains and demonstrates all the steps in the process.


What’s going to happen next? Alonah Frankel, Sir ha-Sirim [The Potty of Potties], Tel Aviv: Masadah, 1984, 18th printing (Cotsen 7519).

 A friend gave Mr. Cotsen a copy of the original Hebrew-language book and his note explains something important that was lost in English translation.

7519lloydnote (2)

Note to Mr. Cotsen laid into Cotsen 7519.

But Gomi and Frankel aren’t to everyone’s taste.  Some people would like it better if  the subject were presented less clinically and lots of authors and illustrators have risen to the occasion.  The most obvious ploy is to let a cute baby animal stand in for the nah-saying toddler.  Here the little bear Bartholomew feels pangs of distress after running out to play without going first.  I refuse to believe that the choice of a bear cub alludes to the well-known and slightly rude rhetorical question meaning, “It sure do!” to cheer on discouraged parents like George the big daddy bear.


From the board book version of On Your Potty! by Virginia Miller. Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2000. (Cotsen 87638)

What if a writer tries to convince the unwilling party that a toilet is an object perfectly designed for the use of human beings by showing that other creatures don’t find it  at all convenient?


Andrea Wayne von Konigslow, Toilet Tales, Willowdale, Ontario: Annick Press, c.1987, 5th edition 1990. Gift of Jeffrey P. Barton. (Cotsen in process 7386230).

I happen to think this is pretty funny, but it’s easy to imagine the author’s whimsical approach backfiring with a child who thinks there are monsters under his bed.  After looking at this opening, the sensible and suggestible pre-schooler might come to the conclusion that there are really nasty things in the plumbing that might  surface in the toilet at any time hunting for something tender to chomp on.   So why would you sit on it ever?


Alternative uses for the spurned potty chair.

One of the best-known euphemisms for the toilet seems to have inspired Tony Ross to create a toilet-training picture book that is much more imaginative than practical.  A toddler princess (crown, but no frilly dress)  puts up quite a fuss when her Queen Mummy tells her “The potty’s the place” if she wants to get rid of her nappies.  But the gist of the story is how the princess’s request for her plastic throne throws the court into hysterics…


Tony Ross, I Want My Potty, London: Andersen Press, c.1986 (Cotsen 86775). I assume the “L” stands for “loo.”

Some authors would rather bring to life the comic dimensions of the battle between generations during toilet training, than offer tips.  The obstreperous  Littlesaurus gleefully defies his elders by singing an obnoxious ditty every time he prevails against efforts to civilize him (yes, he leaves little piles all over the place).  Finally his exasperated Daddysaurus yells he doesn’t care if his son ever uses the potty, so the contrarian Littlesaurus decides to give it a try, only to be caught in the act and given a taste of his own medicine by his beloved family…


Revenge is sweet… Colin MacNaughton, Potty Poo-Poo Wee-Wee! Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2005 (Promised gift). Would a publisher have touched this manuscript if the characters had been human beings?

In researching this post, I’ve come to the conclusion that the collection needs more specimens of this underappreciated genre of non-fiction picture book to  more fully document modern anxieties about toilet-training and the portable potty design.


A tasteful tailpiece.

Goin’ Back for Princeton Reunions 2016












With thanks to Edith Schreiber-Wicke, Cat’s Carnival illustrated by Monika Laimgruber (Boston: David R. Godine, 1986).