Mister Seahorse
by Erik Carle

Erik Carle's Mister Seahorse

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 3-8

Comfort for kids with absent dads

I'm going to send some of you away without having to read this review. If the child you're considering this book for has a biological father in his or her life, I recommend skipping this book. If on the other hand the child is not so fortunate...

Please keep reading.

I was raised in a rather traditional two parent family, and while I enjoyed this book I was rather taken aback by its ending.

The title character, Mister Seahorse, finally hatches the little seaponies he's been carrying around in a pouch on his belly. Of course, my upbringing (two parents, not a seahorse) led me to believe that this would be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

But no - the baby seahorses just swim away with nary a word, nary a look back. One baby, though, turns around and tries to swim back into Daddy's pouch.

"Oh, no!" said Mister Seahorse. "I do love you,
but now you are ready to be on your own."

Lights out, end of story. This is a children's book about fathers? Telling his newborn, "Time to leave the nest, kid"?

Now if I was shocked by this ending at age 47, I can only imagine what a 4 year old child with a loving dad might feel. This seahorse behavior might not feel very fatherly to him. It might actually feel threatening.

Mister Seahorse - summary and review

So now you know my initial, gut reaction to the book. Who the heck would read this to a child?

But the child I was thinking about was me. And upon further reflection, it dawned on me that this former child is hardly representative of every child.

For parents, grandparents, and teachers dealing with a child growing up without a bio-dad, this book clearly could have a place. Absent dad necessarily becomes mythologized, and well-meaning grown-ups likely want to create some positive impressions of this missing man.

In that context, it's hard to think of a more comforting book than this one.

Your dad's work was done by the time you got here

Erik Carle turns to the sea for his inspiration in this book, personifying real-life underwater species in which the "Daddy fish" play an important pre-birth role. Mr. Seahorse meets

  • Mr. Stickleback
  • Mr. Tilapia
  • Mr. Kurtus
  • Mr. Pipe and
  • Mr. Bullhead...

...all of them actual (if obscure) fish that do something important to protect Mrs. Fish's eggs.

Each fish dad is diligent in his duties and reverent of his role. He's playing an important part in each baby's upbringing, even if it's a part that won't be remembered.

Context is everything. What might be threatening to a two-parent child is clearly a comfort to a fatherless one. The message here is:

Daddy's role in your life may be over, but he loved you and did the right thing.

So I break with the reviewers who found this book appropriate for every home. My call? Very appropriate for some. Not so much for others.

Carle works his painted tissue paper magic underwater this time. Every third page is a painted-on transparency camouflaging another real fish - ones not so fatherly and presumably posing a threat to Mister Seahorse's precious cargo.

But neither trumpet fish, nor stonefish, nor lionfish can stay this dad from the swift completion of his appointed rounds. If you know of a young child in need of a positive representation of an absent dad, Mister Seahorse is the book for you.

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