This post from 2016 was inspired by the idea that the successful potty-training books must sell almost as many copies of Harry Potter. Probably almost no one will remember having one read aloud during the critical period, so it seems fitting to rerun this tribute to the secret bestsellers of toddlerhood. Next week we’ll run one more oldie but goodie and resume posting new material in February.
In theory and practice, the non-fiction picture book can play an important teaching skills and competencies in a concrete way. Picture books have been drafted into 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 gaining control over bodily functions by associating it with shame or guilt, the attempt to be upbeat about a semi-taboo subject can be interesting.
Japanese author-illustrator Taro Gomi took a strictly factual approach: every living thing eats, so we’re 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.
When Israeli writer 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. In the 1990s, the version for girls, audible, 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 demonstrates all the steps in the process.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.
But Gomi and Frankel aren’t to everyone’s taste. Some people are more comfortable with a less clinical approach, 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. Little bear Bartholomew feels pangs of distress after running out to play without going first like his George daddy bear suggested. 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.What if a writer tries to convince the unwilling party that a toilet is a perfectly designed object for the use of human beings by showing why no other animal could find it convenient? I happen to think this is pretty funny, but it’s easy to imagine von Konigslow’s whimsical strategy backfiring with a child who believes there are monsters under his bed. After looking at this opening, the suggestible pre-schooler might come to the sensible conclusion that there are really nasty things in the plumbing that might surface in the toilet at any time hunting for something tender to nibble. So why would you sit on it ever?
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) who wants to get rid of her nappies puts up quite a fuss when the Queen Mummy tells her “The potty’s the place.” But the gist of the story is how the princess’s request for her plastic throne throws the court into hysterics…Some authors would rather bring to life the comic dimensions of the battle between generations during toilet training instead of offering tips. Littlesaurus leaves piles of poop everywhere in defiance of his elders’ efforts to civilize him, singing an obnoxious ditty to celebrate his independence. Finally his exasperated Daddysaurus yells he doesn’t care if Littlesaurus ever uses the potty, so the contrarian dino 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… In researching this post, I’ve come to the conclusion that the collection needs more specimens of this underappreciated genre of picture book to more fully document a) modern anxieties about toilet-training and b) portable potty design.