Tuesday, October 3

Stoo Hample's Book of Bad Manners

written and illustrated by Stoo Hample
Candlewick Press 2006

I really wanted to like this. After giving it a quick glance I really had hopes that we had a modern successor to Munro Leaf's Manners Can Be Fun with maybe a hint of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales. Were my expectations too high? Perhaps, but down climbing off my expectations I was still disappointed.

While I might have encountered The Silly Book growing up, my introduction to Stoo Hample was in the late 1970's with his work on the daily comic strip Inside Woody Allen. The strips I remember as being sort of illustrated stale or flat one-liners, the kind of second rate material I assumed the classic Woody Allen would have cut from his movies or books. Of course you take any of those old strips from then and put them up against some of today's dailies and they look like masterpieces of philosophy or, for a number of them, much to risque for today's modern Victorian media sensibilities.

In short bits of humorous rhyme Hample introduces us to the various owners of bad manners: The Greedy Guy, The Schloomper, The Demolition Gang, and so on. Many of the poems are merely inventories of what each of these mean, gross or thoughtless kids do with hardly a consequence in sight. Sure, books for kids can be subversive or just plain fun but when they come up against etiquette and social norms they need to reach a higher mark, they need to be deliciously subversive or devilishly clever to meet the bar. Stoo Hample's Book of Bad Manners fails in that attempt.

I would never in a million years have thought I'd come down on the hard side of a fixed meter in rhymes, especially with many fine examples out there of people who could bend that meter to it's breaking point (like John Ciardi), but at the end of the day if you're not going to make the meter it at least needs to sound natural. Especially if you're going to be silly, especially with kids. The beginning of "Blabbermouth" set my teeth to gnash:

He points at people
And says things that are mean,
Like, "She's got the BIGGEST NOSE
I've ever seen!"

At the end a cartoon Hample, who has been making comments throughout the book, essentially promises the young reader that if they are "equally awful,/Not nice or polite" then they are assured a place in his next book on manners. It sounds more like a promise, an encouragement for kids to try and outdo the near two dozen examples previously depicted.

Like I said, I really did want to like this book.

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