April 27th, 2006


The cute poop taboo

"An elephant makes a big poop, a mouse makes a tiny poop. A one-hump camel makes a one-hump poop, and a two-hump camel makes a two-hump poop. Only kidding!"

So begins Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi. It's the first (and best-selling) title in a series of books published in America by Kane/Miller (motto: "open-minded books opening young minds to the world") which also includes The Holes In Your Nose (about nostrils), The Gas We Pass (about farting) and Contemplating Your Bellybutton.

They're all by Japanese author-illustrators, and they're somewhat in the spirit of my 1991 album Hippopotamomus, a record you could file under "children's avant garde" or "cute taboo", inspired by Serge Gainsbourg's scatophilic 1973 song "L'Hippopodame" and Christian Enzensberger's 1968 book "Smut: An Anatomy of Dirt". Kane/Miller asks us to file the book under: "The Body, Potty, Self Esteem/Identity, Non-Fiction, Concepts", but we could as easily file it under "works inspired by the polymorphous perversity of babies and animals". (The Gainsbourg album was made when Charlotte was a baby, and features Serge on the cover surrounded by monkeys.)

Amazon's page about the book shows a division in attitudes to it as deep as the one that greeted my hippo record. Most readers seem delighted, and tell us their children love it. But publishing trade press people and librarians are appalled. "Okay, so everyone does it--does everyone have to talk about it?" complains Publishers Weekly. "Call it what you will, by euphemism or by expletive, poop by any name seems an unsuitable picture book subject." Denise L. Moll of the Lone Pine Elementary School, West Bloomfield, Michigan wonders, in the School Library Journal, "does anyone really need an entire book on the subject? ...The text is merely a series of rather dull pictures of back ends of people on toilets and animals, with captions identifying them and occasionally posing questions such as "What does a whale's poop look like?" (No answer is provided.)"

It isn't just spinster librarians who feel this way about poop. Check this thread on I Love Music for music fans begging Final Fantasy to change the title of their album He Poos Clouds. "Owen," pleads one, "please name your record something else, for your (and your label's) sake. Because while a lot of people here will tell you that they will listen to your record in spite of it, note that they have not promised to buy it. "He Poos Clouds" is a title that is going to cost you some money." Let's boycott that poop reference!

Taro Gomi himself describes the book's genesis in an appropriately down-to-earth way in an interview with Japan Foundation Newsletter:

JF: "Was it your intention to approach a “tainted” subject in writing this book?"

Gomi: "Yes, but more than that, I love poop. Because it’s fun, don’t you think? Actually, that book came about as a result of a direct experience I had one winter morning at the zoo. I went to the zoo to interview the animal doctor for another project, and I got there before it opened, so most of the cages weren’t cleaned yet. There was a lot of poop around. It was a cold winter morning, and steam was coming out from each pile as the morning sunshine streamed down on it. It was such a vivid scene. I was so impressed that on my way back home, I made up my mind to draw a book about poop. However, when I brought a draft of Minna Unchi to the publisher, the editors had an argument about whether or not to publish it. But there was one woman who loved the book and convinced the others to do it. When the book was published, I received an incredible response from children who said, “I look at poop, too.” I think they were so surprised and happy that some strange man drew a book about poop–something their parents had scolded them not to talk about. But they had also seen this weird thing coming from their bodies. Or, if there was a baby at home, they’d seen poop in its diapers. It was a funny, curious, and interesting thing for them. One boy who loved the book sent me cards entitled “Today’s Poop” almost every day for six months. There were many kids like that."

According to Freud, parents battle their own children during toilet training, and the degree of their success or failure during the "sadistic-anal stage" can fix the child's personality for life as someone either reckless, messy and generous (anal expulsive) or tidy, mean and passive aggressive (anal retentive). I can't claim to have brought up a child, but I did live with a rabbit for the best part of last year, and poop was an important part of our relationship. We didn't see eye-to-eye on the subject. In a conflict Christian Enzensberger would understand, Baker fought me angrily whenever I approached with a broom; what for me was "dirt" was for him "food" (rabbits eat their own pellets). Neither of us prevailed, and the conflict will resume when I return to Berlin at the end of May. But I did learn one thing from our messy war: poop is an important subject, which makes "Everyone Poops" an important book.