Book Review: Scuffy the Tugboat

Since I have started reading to my own son, I have not only discovered many new books (both good and bad) but rediscovered many books from my childhood.  My parents didn’t save baby clothes and only a few toys, but they did save many of what they considered to be the best books that they read to my sister and I when we were young.  Most of these now form part of the children’s library here at our house.

I find it interesting reading the older books. They provide a window to the past and a snapshot of what was considered to be appropriate for children in different decades.  Not only do the illustrations show how the world looked decades ago, but these books can show changes in attitudes towards women and other cultural shifts.  One of the biggest things that I have noticed is the prevalence of smoking in older children’s books.  I don’t imagine that a book for children would be published today with a character who smokes.  As recently as 20 years ago it was not given much though, however; and the dads in almost all of these books smoke.  The Boy often wonders what is going on in these illustrations!  He doesn’t encounter smoking in his daily life.

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BUT… I digress.  “Scuffy the Tugboat – and his aventures down the river“,  was first published in 1946 (according to Wikipedia – it’s also the 8th best selling children’s book of all time (or at least it was in 2001).).   My mom remembers the book from when she was a child and I remember it from when I was young.  Now my son is enjoying this story too.

Why has this book stood the test of time?  It’s a nice story about a little toy boat, who believes that he is “meant for bigger things” than floating around in the bath-tub.  He is put into a stream by the toy shop owner and gets swept away by the current.  At the end of the book he’s rescued just before floating out to sea and decides that maybe a quiet life in the bath-tub is not so boring after all.  If you can take a moral to the story it would be “there’s no place like home”.  It’s an adventure story, at a child’s pace – there are a few tense moments, but it has a happy ending.

I will admit that when I was a kid, I didn’t really like Scuffy, there is a section where the river floods and the people have to come along to put up sand bags to save the towns and fields.  I found that part a bit scary as  a young kid (I was pretty sensitive as a child and quite easily scared by images in books and in movies).  However, as an adult, and a science major who studied water quality and hydrology,  I love that this story nicely describes the terrestrial part of the water cycle without overtly being a “science” book.  After reading this book kids will begin to understand how water flows to the sea through streams, and then rivers, which get bigger and bigger as they flow along until they reach the ocean. It’s a big picture idea that’s difficult to grasp as a small child who can only observe and understand the world at a very local and small scale.

While it’s obvious that the book was written in the past (I don’t imagine there are many places (in North American anyhow) where you’d find women washing their clothes in streams in 2013 (and to be honest, even the idea of the cows wandering around in the streams is a little bit contrary to my training in water quality preservation!)),  I would say that the story is not dated in a bad way.  While the characters in the book are all either men or boys (it’s obvious that scuffy is a “boy” tug boat and a toy for a boy) the story doesn’t present any terrible gender bias that I feel uncomfortable reading to my son.  The story presents a snapshot of life along the river that has definitely changed in the 65+ years since it was published but I believe that the adventurous spirit of the story, the fun illustrations that show the life along the river, the complete story of the journey down the river, and the safe happy ending have  helped this book to endure.

Scuffy is still published today and you can easily order a copy from Amazon or Chapters – and it’s only $4.99.  A bargain for a book that you will hopefully enjoy reading with your kids again and again.  Otherwise – give your parents a call and see if they have a copy of Scuffy in a box in the attic or the basement.   This is a classic book that is worth discovering, or rediscovering.

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