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Sammy the Seal (1959)

de Syd Hoff

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Anxious to see what life is like outside the zoo, Sammy the seal explores the city, goes to school, and plays with the children but decides that there really is no place like home.
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Sammy the Seal is the dystopian novel that 1984 was meant to be. What is Big Brother if not a semiaquatic anglophone determined to force himself into the lives of unsuspecting humans? Orwell envisioned a world where you were always being watched, whether you liked it or not. This, of course, pales in comparison to Syd Hoff's nightmarish conception of a totalitarian regime that grants a seal the right to take a bath IN YOUR TUB whenever it pleases, whether you like it or not.

Sammy is a despot who just happens to spend time in a zoo. He's clearly the Kim Jong-Un of the place. All the other animals are forced to pretend that they're happy for him, smiling toothy, herbivorous smiles as Sammy flops out the door and leaves them all in their cages. Sammy allows the zookeeper to keep up appearances as an authority figure despite his obvious lack of authority. This morphs a man who used to stand for something into a spineless, groveling sycophant that exists only to enable Sammy's innermost fantasies, the most terrifying of which is attending school.

Sammy begins his time in the classroom as an anonymous observer, hoping to catch the teacher in the midst of a lesson that she'd live to regret. Having failed to discern anything other than party rhetoric in her teaching, Sammy makes his presence known to her via an off-key rendition of the song that all the students are forced to sing (there's no better tool for molding young minds than a song). As the lesson continues, Sammy starts playing with blocks adorned with the letters of the alphabet, and his illiteracy becomes apparent to the reader. What happens next is hard to understand the first time through. At first, when Sammy provides clear evidence that he can't read, nothing is done to rectify this obvious academic concern. Then, just a few pages later, Hoff writes, "He learned how to read. He learned how to write." And then this happens:



Do you see that handwriting? It's immaculate! We've got to get this guy on illuminated manuscripts immediately!

So what's going on here? Why did Sammy stink at making words with the blocks only to turn into Máel Muire mac Céilechair in record time? Looking back, it quickly becomes apparent that Sammy could always read. He was able to independently reach a school that he was visiting for the first time, making it very likely he made use of maps and street signs. Sammy's inability to spell anything with the blocks is nothing more than a test. But a test of what? There are two possible explanations, both of them deeply disturbing.

The first is a cynical test of loyalty. Sammy feigns illiteracy to see if the teacher or any of her students would bring up such an embarrassing attribute, which would be to no one's detriment but their own. Imagine the potential consequences of acknowledging any trait of Sammy's that contradicts the social policy of apotheosis. If you say Sammy can't read, doesn't that imply that you think he should learn how to read, meaning that his failure to do so to this point is, in your opinion, an error in judgment??> Blasphemy gets you nowhere, and it gets you there in a hurry.

As terrifying as that idea may be, don't worry, it might be even worse than that. If the teacher would notice Sammy's illiteracy, she would at the very least react in a way to quickly move past the situation. She would more than likely put the blocks away in an attempt to keep the children from noticing what she just noticed, preventing them from saying something stupid that would result in the public execution of their families. But this doesn't occur. Instead, the teacher lets them continue until recess, at which point a casual game of volleyball starts up. What this means, of course, is that she fails to notice Sammy's illiteracy, proving that she has the exact same problem. That's right. This teacher can't read.

While this might seem like a bad thing, it's music to Sammy's ears. He wants teachers that can't read because illiterate teachers teach illiterate students, and a population that can't read or write is much easier to control. Sammy is playing the long game, and if this classroom is representative of education throughout Sammy's nation, then he's succeeding.

The story ends with Sammy returning to the zoo and declaring, "There's no place like home!" He rejoins his fellow seals and chows down on some fish. This seems uncharacteristic for the seal we know Sammy to be, but there's a reason for this. Rather than end the story of Sammy the Seal, Hoff decided to instead offer the reader a new beginning, a solution to the problems that Sammy creates. Hoff indicates that Sammy is perfectly happy in his zoo enclosure, and only his unnecessary exposure to the outside world turns him into a megalomaniac. If the zookeeper kept Sammy where he was and prevented him from expanding his territory, peace could be possible. In Hoff's mind, if you give the seal some fish and pat him on the head, he probably won't come after you.

Syd Hoff and Neville Chamberlain had (at least) two things in common. They both believed in the power of appeasement, and they were both dead wrong. That doesn't mean there aren't lessons to be taken from the cautionary tale of Sammy the Seal. Make sure your kid's teachers know how to read, and if you ever need a calligrapher, hit up the nearest pinniped. ( )
  bgramman | May 9, 2020 |
Great book to read to kids. Getting used to new places. Good for easy readers! Classroom need! ( )
  TaylorMartinez | Oct 6, 2019 |
Sammy the Seal is about a seal named Sammy who wants to see what life is like outside the zoo. He walks all around the city, and even goes inside someone's house because he saw a bathtub and wanted to jump in! Sammy saw children lining up outside a building, figuring out they were waiting to go inside to school, so Sammy stayed in line and went to school for the day. He learned how to read and write, but at the end of the school day, decided to go back to the zoo, claiming that's where he belonged.
This is a good guided reading book for elementary students because there are some challenging words, but most of the words are sight words children will be able to read and comprehend. It is even labeled an "I can read" book, meaning that children should have little to no difficulty (depending on the age/ grade of the child) reading this book.
  katelyn_rhoads | Nov 8, 2018 |
Sammy is bored in the zoo and wants to see the world. And being a good seal, the zookeeper lets him.

Cute children's book found at a library sale. ( )
  regularguy5mb | Aug 27, 2018 |
A simple book good for the very young or those learning to read. ( )
  maddiemoof | Oct 20, 2015 |
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Anxious to see what life is like outside the zoo, Sammy the seal explores the city, goes to school, and plays with the children but decides that there really is no place like home.

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