Take Two: Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent

When I wrote about Cyrus, the Unsinkable Sea Serpent by Bill Peet, I thought that I had pretty much covered what I wanted to say. Then, one of my daughters made a point that I thought was worth sharing. Shortly after that, I read the synopsis of the book on Amazon and realized that I had another point to make as well. If this keeps up, my commentary on the book will be longer than the book itself.

My daughter noted that, like many older books, Cyrus uses language that is not familiar to most young children. While books like those of Dr. Seuss are easy for beginning readers as well as fun, their vocabulary is limited. The Cat in the Hat was certainly an improvement over scintillating school texts that used sentences like, “See Dick run,” but it doesn’t exactly utilize the richness of the English language.   

There is value in books that do just that. When that same daughter was three-years-old, I took her, along with her younger sisters, to visit my parents. Since our family was living on the other side of the country from where I grew up, many local aunts, uncles, cousins and friends came to see us. At one point my three-year-old walked into a living room filled with people and conversation and exclaimed in a clear and piercing voice, “What a pandemonium!” Not surprisingly, the pandemonium only grew.

Despite the fact that educational and linguistic experts would probably not put pandemonium on a word list for her age group, she had heard me read it over and over in a Mr. Happy book, understood it and used it in its correct context. While I only read a few of Roger Hargreaves’ “Mr.” and “Little Miss” books, they were popular with my children as well as expanding their vocabulary.

My own addition to the Cyrus, the Unsinkable Sea Serpent conversation, stemmed from the following description of the book on Amazon: “A shark accuses Cyrus of cowardice because he won’t sink any ships. The kindly sea serpent almost succumbs to peer pressure, but learns at last to be himself.”

No! No! No! That is not what my summary would say nor is it a good moral message to draw from the book. It is true that Cyrus learns that he doesn’t want to be nasty despite being goaded to do so by the shark. But the lesson that follows is not, “To thine own self be true.” The message is that being kind and helpful is the right thing to do and that it can be as exciting and challenging as being cruel. As should happen in books for little children, the bad guys get punished and the good guys thrive. Without moralizing and being pedantic, I hope that the message that comes across to children is that helping others is fun and rewarding, not that if you are basically nasty, you should keep being nasty and if you are basically nice you should keep being nice. After all, the shark is also being himself.

I’m not trying to push Cyrus on anyone and I wouldn’t put it on a “must read” list, though it turned out to be a hit this summer. But I definitely would push the idea that putting a great deal of thought into what types of influences surround the children we love and what messages we are sending is one of the primary jobs of any parent or teacher.

9 thoughts on “Take Two: Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent”

  1. I would highly recommend this biography: Walt Disney: An American Original Hardcover – October 26, 1976, by Bob Thomas 🙂

  2. Dear Susan, I hope that you and your family are well.

    Several circumstances beyond my control have all to do with my ability to do more than read your wonderful posts. I’ts the first time in a while that I have a few minutes to contribute a comment after reading three of your posts. I like to read a small variety of books and materials (political and economy, auto-biographical, chemistry and math related, home decorating, sewing, children’s books, and several othes.)

    A favorite genre is biography with a strong preference for autobiographies. I’m also a fan of business related biographies. I read about the life of Walt Disney, for example. As a small child in the 1970s, I saw a beautiful book describing the making of Disneyland Park at an art and book shop in the New Orleans Square shopping area of Disneyland Park, and it made me want to read about Walt. Later, I read about Roy Disney, the one brother who’d gone into business with Walt. Written by the same author, those books overlapped quite a bit. I bring these books up because of your post’s subject.

    While I have not read Bill Peet’s, “Cyrus, the Unsinkable Sea Serpent”, I did read his autobiography. I didn’t like it. I can also tell you that his title and your “Take Two” reminded me of why I didn’t like his autobiography. Disregarding the likely enjoyable subjects in the story, the book’s title reminds me that Peet was likely describing his own life in it, and it could help to explain why it would’ve been described on Amazon’s site: “A shark accuses Cyrus of cowardice because he won’t sink any ships. The kindly sea serpent almost succumbs to peer pressure, but learns at last to be himself.””

    Peet’s autobiography was that of a sorely misled fellow. He did work for Walt Disney for 30 years, but he was disgruntled and this fact comes out in Peet’s auto-biographical children’s book (an award winning book-probably because it made a point of suggesting that Walt Disney was a big bully of a guy!) I disliked it so much that I threw it away so that it would not be recirculated! The risks that the Disney brothers took and the employment opportunities that they provided to many peoply were extraordinary. The artist worked for the Disney brothers’ company way too long evidently. To Peet, being true to yourself is the only way to be happy. That is the direct message I got from his own writing. It was disgusting. It was like the work of an atheist, or an agnostic at best even if he were neither.
    I would not suggest that children won’t get the message or summary that you would’ve written out of this story, and I am sure that you continue to enjoy books with good messages including Bill Peet’s stories for children. I only wanted to bring your attention to the fact that the description of Peet’s work reflect his life’s experiences most likely because Peet states in his autobiography that his books are works that illustrated his own life.

    I like to read uplifting work and Peet’s autobiography for children was a depressing read for me. On a higher note, I will continue to look forward to the fantastic posts and comment when possible. It’s been a tough year, but our family remains grateful to God for everything. Every day is a miracle! – LJ

    1. Oh, my. I’m sorry that it has been a difficult year. As you know, according to ancient Jewish wisdom a new year began 5 days ago and especially for the next 5 days as well, this period is a uniquely auspicious time to pray for whatever you want during this new year.
      I assumed that someone at Amazon or a library service wrote the blurb, not that it was written by Bill Peet himself, but who knows? I also enjoy reading biographies and autobiographies and sometimes there is a huge gap between a person’s work and the person’s life.
      Thanks for your input and I wish you a year of health, prosperity, peace and joy.

      1. Many thanks for your reply and wisdom from the best ancient source: Jewish wisdom! I also assume that an Amazon or library service wrote the blurb, but repeating what I wrote, Bill Peet himself “….states in his autobiography that his books are works that illustrated his own life.” I took that to mean that the description likely describes what the author intended the book to get across: “To thine own self be true.”

      2. Susan, I apologize that I failed to verbally express my hope that you’ll also have a good year with joy, peace, prosperity and excellent health. With sincere appreciation for your friendship and work, I am thankful for your thoughts and well wishes.

        I also desired to include the titles of the books that I read; and these are books that I own because I like to read them more than once (except for Bill Peet’s autobiography.) I have listed them below.

        Many people may not like the myriad products bearing the name of “Walt Disney.” These two (out of five) Disney brothers’ story has fascinated me since childhood. Their history is not well known in our culture because Walt passed away the year before I was born (1960s era) and then his brother passed away in the 1970s. Many Christians and others have said to me that they hate Walt Disney for products bearing his name and for their ‘greedy’ company (and I’ve heart that Walt was a racist old white guy from an Asian lady); but most of those folks are unaware that many of the products that they say they hate were made after his death! I have asked many people to express to me what they know about Walt Disney and his brother Roy Disney, and then they learn that they don’t really know much about them.

        Isn’t this also true of our politicians and judges?

        I own two Walt Disney biographies written by his official biographer and author, Bob Thomas, because one of them is a children’s book that I read when I was a child. I do prefer autobiographical works overall, however, an excellent biographer can do wonders for a story and Bob Thomas was certainly a well spoken author.

        Walt Disney – Magician of the Movies – Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1966, by Bob Thomas

        Walt Disney The Art Of Animation: The Story Of The Disney Studio Contribution to A New Art Hardcover – Import, 1958, by Bob Thomas

        Walt Disney: An American Original Hardcover – October 26, 1976, by Bob Thomas

        Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empires Hardcover – July 16, 1998, by Bob Thomas

        The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation Hardcover – October 5, 1995, by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas

        Bill Peet: An Autobiography Paperback – March 28, 1994, by Bill Peet

        1. Thank you for the New Year wishes. I would like to read a good biography of Walt Disney. I too think that after his death his story (and certainly his enterprise) was changed.

  3. I just visited Amazon to check out this book. It looks adorable! There are now 4 books by Bill Peet in my Amazon cart. I’m sure my husband will be so delighted to find more books in said cart! As a homeschooling mom, my bookshelves are already filled to bursting!

    1. Priscilla, one of the hardest things about moving was culling books, including children’s books. I just asked my husband the other day how we can arrange to get more shelves. We had a moratorium on buying books when we first moved, but we’re both breaking the agreement at this point.

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