Pooping, Mewling and Puking: Iona Opie’s Babies: An Unsentimental Anthology (1990)

 “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

Carl Sandburg, Remembrance Rock (1948), chapter 2.

At first the infant, Mewling and puking in his nurse’s arms.”

Shakespeare, As You Like It, (1599),  II. vii.

One of the above didn’t make the  cut in Iona Opie’s anthology of poems, songs, quotable quotes, and anecdotes about the less admissible feelings babies inspire in new parents, siblings, the childless, and anyone who wonders momentarily if it wasn’t all a huge mistake.

It may come as a surprise to those who revere the monumental works of scholarship on the oral culture and lore of childhood Iona Opie co-authored with her husband Peter, that she did not labor under the illusion that normal boys and girls trailed clouds of glory as a matter of course. Much closer to the mark is this wonderfully succinct characterization of young human beings in the  Lore and Language of Children (1959) as “the greatest of savage tribes.”   This volume was not intended for seekers of sticky-sweet, inspirational sayings for baby shower invitations or birth announcements: it is for someone walking the floor with a colicky infant or anyone who has changed one too many diapers in one morning—the people on the front line of childcare day in and day out those first five exhausting years. And, I suppose, those who survived the experience, still love their children, and can laugh about it.

Cotsen recently acquired sixty-eight of the pen-and-ink and wash drawings by Australian illustrator Bob Graham, recipient of the 2000 Smarties and 2002 Kate Greenaway awards and a 2012 nominee for Hans Christian Andersen Award, executed with glee for Iona’s least-known and funniest work about childhood, which is a particular favorite of mine,   An added bonus is a three-ring binder containing Iona’s typescript of an interim version of the manuscript.

Here are some of Graham’s droll drawings and the selections (or excerpts) they accompany.

Paternal disillusionment

Needles and pin, needles, and pins,/ When a man marries his trouble begins;/ Blankets and sheets, blankets and sheets,/ When a man marries he’s bothered wi’ geits [children]


Paternal schizophrenia

Thou enviable being!/ No storms, no clouds, in thy blue sky forseeing,/ Play on, play on,/ My elfin John!/ Toss the light ball—bestride the stick–/ (I knew so many cakes would make him sick!) With fancies buoyant as the thistledown,/ Promptin the face grotesque, and antic brisk/ With many a lamblike frisk–/ (He’s got the scisssors, snipping at your gown!)/  Thou pretty opening rose!/ (Go to your mother, child, and wipe your nose!)/ Balmy, and breathing music like the South,’ (He really brings my heart into my mouth!)/ Fresh as the morn, and brilliant as its star–/ (I wish that window had an iron bar!)/ Bold as the hawk, yet gentle as the dove–/ (I tell you what, my love,/ I cannot write, unless he’s sent above!)

Thomas Hood, “Parental Ode to my Son, Aged Three Years and Five Months,” Blackwood’s Magazine, Feb. 1837.

An Old Bachelor’s Meditation

What a lot of nasty little ugly babies in the streets,/ Being wheeled about in those confounded little chairs one meets!/ I mean those Perambulators, pushed by stupid, careless, blind,/ Lazy dawdling, idle, addle-headed servant girls behind./ Litte screaming chits of creatures, little wryfaced roaring brats,/ With their little absurd bows and feathers in their silly hats,/ Foolish little coats and jackets, flimsy little fancy frocks:/ Chubby faces, turned-up noses, and preposterous curly locks! 

“Perambulators and Pedestrians or, Mr. Crosswig’s Annoyance”

Toilet-training: The victim’s view

Who took me from my nice warm cot,/ And sat me on the cold cold pot/ Whether I wanted to or not?/  My Mother.

A parody of the classic19th-century poem on female self-sacrifice by Ann Taylor, “My Mother.”

Learning from mistakes

Once the pixies stole a baby,/ But it’s only fair to say/ That they very soon returned it,/ And on the very self-same day: /Who blames ‘em? 

Anon. Recitations, ed. B. Heitland, 1919.

At least they are adorable some of the time…

Bestsellers: Picture Books for Potty Training


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 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.


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

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.


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 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.


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 a perfectly designed object for the use of human beings by showing why no other animal could find it 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 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?


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)  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…


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 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…


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 picture book to more fully document a) modern anxieties about toilet-training and b) portable potty design.


A tasteful tailpiece.