Once Upon a Potty was written in 1975 by the Israeli author and illustrator Alona Frankel to help her son toilet train. (Its Hebrew title is Sir Ha-Sirim, literally “Potty of Potties.”) Since it was translated into English in 1980, it’s never gone out of print, and now it’s regarded as a picture-book classic, a helpful resource for the parents of young children.
It was banned in my house. My mother disliked the use of euphemisms she deemed babyish—wee-wee, potty, “a hole to woo-woo from”—and illustrations she found “creepy” and “disgusting.” I can still recall first hearing what would become one of her most oft-repeated phrases: “I don’t care for that at all.” She sniffed at households that owned the book and curled her lip when we saw it on store shelves.
As a result, Once Upon a Potty took on the luster of the taboo. Like a nineteenth-century schoolboy with a French postcard, I would read it—or, anyway, look at it—furtively whenever I was unobserved: at other toddlers’ houses, in the children’s room of the library, at the local Y where I did tumbling. Particularly shocking to me was the final illustration: the triumphant coil of tempera feces in a puddle of yellow urine. And the accompanying text! Exuberantly babyish, frankly scatological, my mother’s nightmare incarnate. “Bye-bye wee-wee,” it reads as the excrement disappears down the toilet. “Bye-bye woo-woo.”
Beyond its scandalous subject matter, I was struck by the fact that the protagonist, Joshua, had a full head of hair: I was bald. What Freud would have to say about all this is an open question. (There is surprisingly little scholarly work devoted to Freudian readings of the Frankel oeuvre.)
Not long ago, I was babysitting for a friend’s toddler. And there, on the shelf, I spotted it: a smiling, naked baby, seated on a chamber pot, gaily ringed with forget-me-nots. Once Upon a Potty. To read it now, I thought, would be creepy, or deviant, even. And yet throughout the following hours it preyed on me. I was wracked with irrational anxiety: What if my charge wanted me to read it aloud? I couldn’t; it would be akin to reading pornography.
In the end, it didn’t come to that. When he brought me a stack of picture books, Once Upon a Potty was not in it. Instead, there was a copy of Everybody Poops. I moved it covertly to the bottom of the pile. I didn’t want to read it—but there was no need to turn it into something forbidden.