The children’s literary canon is littered with propaganda. Drawn in by bright colors and insipid talking animals, children have little awareness that their ideologies are being manipulated, ensuring their futures as compliant citizens of the State. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 1942 so-called classic, “The Poky Little Puppy.”
Although on its face a sweet, if plodding, tale of five puppies and their quest for adventure and various desserts, “The Poky Little Puppy” is something much more insidious. Underneath its saccharine exterior lies a brutal allegory, a roadmap for the punishment of difference and resistance by authoritarian regimes. A movement founded in anti-fascist solidarity is quickly undermined by the liberal tendency to kowtow to pressure and to accept token victories in exchange for compliance. In the end, the titular puppy is little more than a pawn, his gifts used and abused by the treacherous dogs around him. Abandoned, scapegoated, and alone, he starves while his former comrades feast.
1.) Salad Days
Like any tragedy, our story opens on an optimistic note. Five puppies organize to escape the clutches of their ever-watchful Mother (representing the State), digging their way under the fence which imprisons them. Drunk on the success of their first radical direct action, they frolic through the rolling countryside with abandon, blissful in the assurance of solidarity. Little do they know what awaits them, what Mother has planned.
2.) Poky’s Gift Discovered
Ostensibly a protagonist, our Poky is in fact nothing but a tool: first to be used to the advantage of the more mediocre puppies, later to be discarded when his usefulness runs out. During the puppies’ first excursion, his special gift is discovered. Our unwitting mutt is possessed of unique sensory abilities; able to smell, hear, and see what others cannot, he catches wind of the desserts which will come to represent the State’s efforts at appeasement. When he smells rice pudding on the air, the other puppies leave him at once, bounding back to Mother. Back at home, however, they are punished for their act of rebellion. Only our pokiest of puppies, ignorant of his comrades’ betrayal and slowest to amble home, enjoys dessert alone. Thus, the seeds of resentment within the movement are planted.
3.) The Panopticon Rises
From this point on, it becomes abundantly clear that the puppies are being surveilled. The following morning, a sign appears on the fence, warning them away from further organization. Soon, the knowledge of surveillance will lead the puppies to self-censor, to anticipate Mother’s actions. This is a calculated move on Mother’s part. State Apparatus that she is, she knows that she need only introduce the threat of punishment (and the promise of reward) to foment chaos between the puppies. For now, however, they continue to resist. Once again, they escape. Once again, Poky’s difference is taken advantage of. Once again, the other puppies abandon him at the first sign of dessert.
4.) The Movement Fractures
At last, Mother springs her trap. Following one last display of Poky’s gift, the puppies again race home into the waiting arms of their oppressor. By now, constant surveillance has thoroughly warped their impressionable minds, leaving them fatigued and complacent. Finding that they have once again been kept from dessert, the spineless hounds go to work repairing the hole they dug. Not only have they caved to State control, but they have even gone so far as to undo their own radical efforts. In return, they earn their meagre victory: a plate of strawberry shortcake. And what has become of gentle Poky, left in the wilds by his fair-weather companions? He is locked out, forced to squeeze through the fence and return to his prison friendless and foodless, with his fledgling movement in ruins. Through no fault of his own, Poky is destitute.
Given such a conclusion, what must we make of this tragic narrative? Can a radical movement ever succeed when its members mistake pudding for freedom? Can a figurehead such as Poky ever be anything more than a sacrificial lamb, traded to the State for a little more comfort, a slightly larger prison cell? “The Poky Little Puppy” offers no answers. In its ambiguity, the book squanders its potential as a leftist parable and becomes little more than a warning to generations of children: Do not organize. Do not resist. Accept your strawberry shortcake and forget the siren’s call of solidarity. Mother sees all and she cannot be defeated.