For love of McElligot's Pool
If I wait long enough;
If I'm patient and cool,
who knows what I'll catch
in McElligot's Pool.
I had a gut feeling McElligot's Pool would be on the list. Not that I remembered any specific racist imagery, but I had a vague feeling that among the drawings of a hundred fanciful fish, there was a caricature of a Chinese fish. I was right.
I've always been surprised how few people have heard of McElligot's Pool. From more than sixty books written or illustrated by Theodor Seuss Geisel, it doesn't even make the top sixteen most popular among Goodreads users. But it is my absolute favorite.
First published in 1947, it tells the story of a young man who is ridiculed for fishing in a dirty old pond.
"Young man," laughed the farmer,
"You're sort of a fool!
You'll never catch fish
In McElligot's Pool!"
The boy admits it could be true. He hasn't had a bite in three hours. But he goes on to tell the farmer all his hopes for what might be: a pool connected by an underground brook to all the waters of the world, and all the fantastical fish that, even now, might be headed his way.
For page after page, we tour oceans full of dogfish, catfish, checkboard fish, and strawberry fish, moving at the fast clip of Suessian rhymes. The creatures are more and more outlandish, and the book holds some of Seuss's most beautiful illustrations.
Lobster fish, fish on skis, circus fish, all headed to McElligot's. Midway through the journey, we get an unexpected pause -- for the fish who likes flowers. She never failed to bring me a sense of peace.
In addition to the Chinese slander, three other pages may have triggered the publisher's decision. There are some "fish from the Tropics, all sunburnt and hot." On that page, a pleasant man sits on an island, wearing a mustache, a vest and a teal sombrero.
On the next page are some Eskimo fish. Their eyes and mouths look a bit mean - or determined. Watching their migration to McElligot's pool is a happy man outside his igloo, all fuzzy in a fur suit. Across the page sits an equally happy walrus. Considering the man is also holding a harpoon, I have to believe the walrus feels safe enough being on a different iceberg.
A third earth-bound location is...
a stranger place yet!
From the world's highest river
In far off Tibet.
In this place, the fish fins are parachutes, so they can float down the falls.
Watching the show is a man in a colorful costume, tall pointed hat and wild white beard, looking a bit like a wizard.
Are the illustrations of the Tibetan, Eskimo and Latino harmful for young readers? Do they make a small boy or girl feel comfortable that their race and culture are accepted. Maybe not.
Honorable mention to the Australian kangaroo fish with a pouch. I wouldn't think it is offensive. I also took a look at the page showing Americans going about their day-to-day, with the underground brook snaking below. Here, Seuss relies on types, common in 1940s America: a woman at a clothesline, a farmer, women reading books on a hotel porch, a man playing croquet. As there is no guideline written in stone, we have to use our gut to know where a type crosses the line into stereotype, and where we feel harm.
Certainly the Chinese fish is a problem.
As a boy, I was surrounded by caricatures of races, caricatures of roles, caricatures of genders. I grew up, and so has the world. I can't imagine any grandchildren having a relationship with Native American culture the way I did at five years old in YMCA Indian Guides. I know the weave of other cultures into their worlds will be much richer.
Am I upset that the publisher, or whiny woke people, are canceling my culture? No. It helps that I have my own copy, but a business can decide what to produce and not produce, and I admire their desire to be supportive of all their readers.
I'm not angry, but I feel we loose something vital without this book.
McElligot's Pool is my deep source of life that never stops giving. Anything, no matter how crazy, is possible. Thanks to this little book, my ponds are always connected to the whole universe. Can't Be is always Might Be. When we allow that magic, we tap into the power of our Fool archetype and we become more whole, more capable. Yes, it is one part of being woke, which is a real thing, and lives on the page right after the whales.
I think the publishers should amend the book. I heard that Seuss' daughter wanted them to keep publishing, to let discussion be sparked. That does not show kindness to those who are diminished by the images.
The Eskimo page follows the Tropics page. They are paired in the narrative. With some sadness, these could be omitted. Better yet, just cut out the two men. Likewise, the Tibetan man could be erased. The Chinese fish appears in the big finale, the denouement. With so many other fish on the page, it could easily be deleted.
We lose something without the message and wonder of McElligot's Pool. If I have grandchildren, I'll certainly read it to them. I would like an amended version. With little ones, I'd experience again all the endless possibilities and I'll find so many ways to help them see cultures clearly, just as I believe I did with my own children.
And that's why I think
I'm not such a fool
When I sit here and fish
In McElligot's Pool!