Books We Loved as Kids: Abiyoyo

I would venture to guess that I am not the only person in the library at this very moment who was an avid Reading Rainbow watcher as a child.  One of the books highlighted on the show was Pete Seeger’s Abiyoyo, a story he created for his own children and a favorite of mine in my preschool days.

The story tells of a boy who played the ukelele and his father who had a magic wand that could make things disappear.  The two of them annoy the townspeople with their music and magic to the point that they are banished to the outskirts of town.  Then, the monster Abiyoyo appears, terrifically disgusting:

There was Abiyoyo. He had long fingernails, ’cause he never cut ’em. He had slobbery teeth ’cause he never brushed them. Matted hair, ’cause he never combed it. Stinking feet, ’cause he never washed them.

The boy and his father put their music and magic to work once more.  The boy sings a song to the monster, who is apparently so pleased that the song is about him that he grins and dances around to the point of exhaustion.  When he collapses, the father goes zoop! with his wand and makes Abiyoyo disappear.

My first thought when revisiting this text was that it fits well into the typos of the suspicious, magical man and his boy apprentice that live on the edge of town (for other examples think Faust, Back to the Future, or Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan).  Instead of creating disorder by making a pact with Mephistopheles or stumbling accidentally into the past, these outsiders use their tricks to restore order (arguably also the fact in Back to the Future and Star Wars) and are welcomed back into the community, a heart-warming message for the preschool audience.

Of further appeal to this audience is certainly also the idea of being able to make things disappear.  All that is frightening and monstrous can, in the story, be whisked into nothingness by the swing of a father’s magic wand.  If only parents had such power when we grow up.

Not to say that the boy isn’t clever himself–he indulges the egotism of the giant in his song.

Whether Abiyoyo, with the teeth he doesn’t brush and the hair he doesn’t comb, serves as a didactic warning to children who would be tempted to similarly disregard social norms (much like the German Struwwelpeter), or if he represents the uncontrolled id in his appetite, egotism, and dancing, which needs to be done away with in order to be accepted into civil society, are questions that can be explored further.

Theory and hidden messages aside, the book is highly entertaining, as is the Reading Rainbow episode.

Title: Abiyoyo, based on a South African lullaby and folk story

Author: Pete Seeger

Call Number: PZ8.1.S453 1986 c.2 (you will have to request it from the closed stacks)