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Home > Blog > October 2011 > “This Is a Watchbird Watching YOU”

Recently, I began processing the papers of children’s book author and illustrator Munro Leaf. Having already processed the Frederick R. Gardner collection of Robert Lawson, it was a perfect transition to move to the Munro Leaf papers. Munro Leaf (1905-1976) wrote The Story of Ferdinand (1936) for his friend Lawson to illustrate, and they collaborated on three more children’s books: Wee Gillis (1938), an adaptation of Aesop’s Fables (1941), and The Story of Simpson and Sampson (1941). After Frederick R. Gardner donated his Lawson collection to the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Munro Leaf’s widow, Margaret, decided to do the same with his papers.

Munro Leaf may be best remembered for Ferdinand but it was finding the material for his long-running Watchbirds series that was an early highlight in the collection. The Watchbirds series reminded me of the Goofus and Gallant cartoons in Highlights magazine that I read at my dentist’s office as a child. (Fun fact: Highlights magazine also ran a similarly themed series by Munro Leaf, Checkaway, in the 1950s.) The Watchbirds cartoons started out as a recurring column in Ladies Home Journal in 1938, but remained a fixture in the cultural mindset even after Leaf’s death in 1976: we have a Watchbirds calendar from 1978 and the most recent Watchbirds book, Four and Twenty Watchbirds, was published in 1990.

The Watchbirds flip the concept of bird-watching onto any potential childhood naughtiness. Did you (or might you) complain about going to bed on time? Refuse to brush your teeth? Throw a tantrum? Watch out, for there’s a watchbird watching YOU. After their popularity grew in Ladies Home Journal, the Watchbirds cartoons were compiled into five books and there is even “The Watchbird Song.” The cartoons followed a standard pattern: a naively drawn caricature (see the original art for “a SQUIRMER” at right) would be accompanied by a cute explanatory caption and two watchbirds. One watchbird would be disappointedly watching the Squirmer, the other would be watching YOU. A SQUIRMER is described by Leaf:

“Squirmers never sit still. They wriggle and wriggle and twist and turn until you wonder why they don’t fall apart. This one in the picture squirmed so much we couldn’t tell whether it was a boy or a girl. Squirmers are terrible at the table or in the barber shop.”

The Watchbirds may be a bit Big Brother for 2011 (they are particularly intimidating when found on adult-targeted brochures, like the one Leaf decorated for the Better Citizens Booth of the League of Women Voters), but Leaf’s captions and absurdist drawings soften the nagging. And if you’re interested in other ways Leaf endeavored to humorously indoctrinate children into good behavior, you might enjoy Manners Can Be Fun (1936), the second entry in a long and occasionally absurd series of titles (1976’s Metric Can Be Fun! is a personal favorite). There’s plenty more in the Munro Leaf collection, so check out our Facebook page for updates or make an appointment to come visit the Rare Book Department to see his whimsy in person!

-Caitlin Goodman

Tags: CLIR Grant, Children's Literature Research Collection, Children's books, Exhibitions, Rare Book Department, archives, art

Turn that TV down! (Page proof from 1978 Watchbirds calendar)
Turn that TV down! (Page proof from 1978 Watchbirds calendar)
Over three feet long, this poster will get your attention. Children's Dental Health Week, 1953.
Over three feet long, this poster will get your attention. Children's Dental Health Week, 1953.
Wed, October 19, 2011
I grew up with Ferdinand, Wee Gillie, and Watchbirds. One of the favorite Watchbird cartoons in Army counterintelligence was the "Teltapperphoner" Its closing line warned not to be a" phoner on a teltapperphonertapped telephone " It probably did a lot for military securiy!
Eben in NYC, NY - NYC
Sun, November 20, 2011
I remember during the second world war reading this comic script in the Sunday news paper not the ladies home journal does anyone else ? and where can i obtain copys of the weekly sequence
mary Von Thaden - deer park n.y.
Fri, January 27, 2012
Seems educational in a funny way
sarah - Minnesota
Mon, October 01, 2012
Thanks for posting these. It looks like I have been trying to get over the implied criticism all my life. In my head, whatever I do, or am doing is wrong. I would have been better off without these subliminal judgments disguised as cartoons!!!! "Get over it" I tell myself but this has been installed very deeply.
tekla - BC Canada
Sat, June 08, 2013
When I was in school in the 50's and lived in Wash.D.C., there was a children's program on television, for pre-schoolers. The teacher would quote the Watchbird Watching You. and all of the children in her class would repeat the lesson of the day. This was probably taken from the local newspaper comics. I reprimanded my children in that fashion as they grew up. They, in turn have done the same. The Watchbird lives on & on.
Carroll - Brunswick, GA
Mon, September 23, 2013
Today, as I was listing books for moving house, I came across my childhood copy of The Watchbirds and decided to Google the Author, Munro Leaf. It was fascinating to read about him and all the books he wrote. What a wonderful thing the internet is! My mum used to read The Watchbirds to me and I also read it to my 3 children. I believe it's a very effective and fun way of teaching children good behaviour and life lessons. It worked for me and my children and I will be reading it to my grandchildren as well. Jillian, "Down Under" in Australia
Jillian - Sydney, Australia
Fri, April 25, 2014
My mom was a subscriber to the Ladies Home Journal, and I grew up with the Watchbirds. Each month I would measure my behavior against that advocated by the Watchbirds (and was often found wanting in the balance). But for some reason I was riveted by these ornithological wardens, and I have not the slightest doubt that some of the lessons they imparted are permanently lodged in my mental hard drive. For example, it would never occur to me to litter, and when I see a litterbug in action, I grind my molars. Elbows on the table, eavesdropping, interrupting someone in mid-sentence -- all big no-nos, then and now. Ignatius of Loyola said, "Give me the child until he is seven, and he is mine for life." The Watchbirds owned me then, and they own me still.
Ken Puck - Philadelphia
Fri, August 01, 2014
My brother mentioned to me this morning that we had had a Watchbird book as children in Philadelphia in the late 1930's. I was born in 1934, and he in 1936. We also had the Munro Leaf Ferdinand book, so I suppose this was also by Munro Leaf, Don't remember the Ladies Home Journal ones, though I must have seen them. His therapist was appalled that anyone would write such a book for children!
Martha Brons - New Jersey
Tue, November 18, 2014
FINALLY I have some verification on the Watchbirdfsd. Nobody that I know recalls them at all. We had posters in our grade school in the 1940s that exhorted - - not quite threatened - - us to do such things as brush our teeth, wash our hands, and generally behave.
Hugh Spencer - Countryside IL
Tue, January 20, 2015
I have an original Watchbird "This is a Just-A-Minute" clipping my Mother cut out of the Ladies Home Journal and posted on the refrigerator door. Frequently I was engrossed in play when my Mother called me for dinner and I would say "just a minute." I took the clipping off the refrigerator and hide it. She would find it and tape it back up. I still find myself saying that line, and then recalling the Watchbird's stern look at a "Just a Minute."
Myra Hickey - Virginia
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