Yesterday, I had the opportunity to read Sammy the Seal by Syd Hoff (1959) to an elementary school student. You may remember this book from your own childhood (I remember it from mine) — or perhaps you’ve already read it to your children. The basic premise is that Sammy the Seal suffers depression because he wants to know what the world is like outside the (Bronx? Central Park?) zoo. A zookeeper grants him the right to explore the city on his own, and Sammy has all sorts of adventures — including going to school. People don’t seem to think it strange to see a seal wandering around downtown New York, so we’ll (mostly) take that suspension of disbelief, for what it is (but more on that in a bit). At the end of the story, Sammy decides to return to the zoo.
Okay, yes, I should be reading this book the context of the late 1950s, when it was written. The historic lens or whatever. That’s now how I’m talking about it here though, because I think it’s also important to consider the messages this book inadvertently sends, and what it means for the children who read this book more than 60 years after it was first published.
To begin with, the zoo looks antiquated — think old steel bars, sparse enclosures, etc. This may be an opportunity for talking with the child in your life about whether this is how the zoos they’ve been to look (or, if they haven’t been to a zoo, an opportunity to give them the creative freedom to describe things they think would make the animals happier, using knowledge they already have about those animals), and providing them with at least a few points about why zoos no longer look this way (animal comfort, breeding programs, trying to enhance the visitor experience, etc.).
Even if this isn’t something you want to bring up, another thing to address would be that all the characters in the book are white. Does that seem unusual compared to other books you’ve read with the child? What about knowing that it’s set in New York? At the very least, even if you don’t talk about this either, consider that it creates a very definite perception about the people who are “supposed” to go to zoos and eat at restaurants.
The children at the school Sammy attends for the day treat him like an equal — but also learn about differences that make them unique (seals can catch a ball with their nose, while little boys should not). This, five years after Brown vs. Board of Education which stated (cue high school history: separate but equal is not constitutional). Alas, Sammy the (brown) Seal decides that one day of school — though it was fun — isn’t what he wants. He wants to return to his cage (ehm, um, exhibit) at the zoo.
He had a taste at freedom, but rejected it because the city wasn’t built for him. He couldn’t figure out how to find comfort for himself. He had the opportunity to escape — the patriarchy (zookeeper) allowed it — but instead of taking full advantage of this, Sammy decided to return to the place that was “rightfully” his — the place where conditions might not be ideal, but at least he wouldn’t be isolated, without peers. Ultimately, this is a story about following the expectations of others, of returning to the fold, of being grateful for what you have instead of dreaming about how life might be better.
I know, reading race, oppression,and patriarchy into this story probably brings forth your progressive groan. Ugh. But I think it’s important to have these conversations with kids — and with other adults — in multiple ways, looking at the assumptions we’ve held and the assumptions we still held. To talk about these things in the context of history and present manifestations. I think Sammy the Seal is ripe with opportunities to discuss these topics, even if you don’t touch on them all.
And that being said, I think it’s crucial to note that Syd Hoff was a leftist. I think that might be part of why it was so critical in his book that people accept Sammy the Seal without questioning his seal-ness, or that they were talking to a seal. Why we’re asked to suspend disbelief. This is about recognizing our own humanity, and recognizing the self-cognizant qualities of other beings.
I’d love to know your thoughts on Sammy the Seal though — if you remember reading it as a child, and what you thought of it, or if you read it to children in your life.