Anyone with kids has probably read books by Sandra Boynton around 4385 times per child (based on an average of three years times four books a day). And no wonder. The pictures are vibrant, the concepts silly, and the rhythm and rhyme don’t drive one crazy.
But there’s one book that has needled at me over the thousands of times I’ve read it in the last eight years. This book, from the cover to the final line, is filled with so many logical fallacies that I am forced to speak out. This book is Hippos Go Berserk.
I should begin with its merits. It’s short. While it’s not exactly Lord Byron, the poetry is serviceable. Also, it’s subject matter is more appropriate for a 2 year old than Don Juan. It’s much shorter than Don Juan.
Now for the problems, which are myriad. Let’s start at the beginning—the cover. The book, as I mentioned, is called Hippos Go Berserk, which would make you think it will be about erratically behaved horses, since anyone who has taken even a single semester of Greek would tell you, the Greek word for horse is hippos. But look on the cover of Hippos Go Berserk. The subjects have bulbous snouts and almost spherical torsos. Their legs are short and stubby, almost as if they are jointed only at the hips. These are the worst looking horses I’ve ever seen. Also, the word berserk means to act erratically, but these horses are running in a straight line. The last one is doing a cartwheel, but in the direction of the rest of the horses.
Moving on to the story itself, the book begins well. A solitary hippo, alone and bored calls two other hippos on the phone (one must suspend his disbelief to guess how the hippo dials a number on the phone with such stubby hoofs). Turn the page and here we see the two phoned hippos in the one hippo’s house looking a little annoyed that there are “three hippos at the door bring[ing] along another four.” I’m with you, annoyed hippo. Why are these seven hippos here? Did one hippo call them, too? He looks happy that they have come, but the reader is left to wonder a lot (like how long have the two hippos been there).
One hippo starts to get annoyed when the next group of uninvited (we can only surmise) hippos arrive overdressed. The plot continues along these lines as hippos continue to crash the party—seven come in a sack (who carried the sack to the door? did they bring the sack first and wrap themselves in it?), eight sneak in the back, and a catering team of nine hippos come rather late but to the relief of the one hippo.
At this point, “all the hippos [plus one monster] go berserk” along with the grammar of Sandra Boynton. This mid-point of the narrative is marked by the lines “all through the hippo night,/ hippos play with great delight./ But at the hippo break of day,/ the hippos all must go away.” What is a “hippo night?” we are left to wonder, but it apparently ends at the equally mysterious “hippo break of day.”
No matter, I suppose, because the hippos now start to leave. The caterers depart, ostensibly with the eight hippos that snuck in the back, but they are going the opposite direction from whence they came. Why? It isn’t explained, and nor is the provenance of the bus upon which they depart.
The seven hippos who arrived in a sack (presumably, unless the groupings have all gone berserk along with the story) now leave in the opposite direction from their point of origin. But, hold on, a dark undercurrent to the story has revealed itself. For these otherwise anthropomorphized hippos have enlisted two of their own as beasts of burden, harnessed to pull a wagon for five hippos in the same group but apparently of a different class. That these “seven hippos moving west leave six hippos quite distressed” is left to the reader to interpret: are the six hippos distressed because they are left behind? Or are they empathizing with the two hippos forced to pull the wagon?
Whatever the case, we only learn they are “distressed,” which poses another difficulty, that being that they never leave. When the five, four, three, and two hippos go their way, the six hippos apparently remain on the back porch in distress! So when we get to the last page and the “one hippo. . . misses the other forty-four” the reader throws up his hands at the lack of logic.
One of the apparent redeeming qualities of this mess of a book is that it teaches children to count. But count at the end and there are only thirty-eight hippos to miss. Again, there are six hippos on the back porch!
Now, there is another, more generous reading, that Boynton is employing dramatic irony here. The one hippo misses the other forty-four, but little does he know that six of his friends are in his house and they need his friendship now more than ever. But come on, Sandra Boynton. This is a children’s book. A two-year-old couldn’t possible read a text in such a way.