Wednesday, August 17

Just Disgusting

by Andy Griffiths   with illustrations by Terry Denton  

"From the Best-Selling Author of The Day My Butt Went Psycho..." 'nuff said.  

In researching about the types of books boys like to read I came up with a short list of elements that, when included, would increase a reader's interest. Most of the things writers are taught have to do with craft elements – subtext, metaphor, desire lines, character development, plotting and pacing, etc – which may make for fine literature but aren't the sort of things boys care about when they want to read.

Want to read.

See, for me the battle for the mind of boy readers is getting them to want to read and worrying about content and context much later. And if getting them to the point where they want to read means giving them a longer leash on junk reading, so be it. In fact, where curricula moves students from reading for fun toward reading for meaning at around the fourth grade I think the goal posts should be moved and those concepts introduced in the second half of sixth grade. Let them read for fun for a few more years and I think you'll have a larger group of stronger readers among the student body. Boys and girls could continue to read whatever interested them, none of the books currently taught would be abandoned, all I'm suggesting is a couple extra years to let boys get a better footing with reading and toward wanting to read.  

That said, here is a fine piece of junk reading that boys will enjoy, one of a series. It's got everything a boy could hope for in a book: short stories, outrageous humor, exportable imagery, plenty of action, a good dose of cartoon violence, and no pretensions about being art or literary. What the books in this series lack in subtlety they make up for in sheer gross-out entertainment value. There is no way any teacher or parent is going to recommend these books to the boys in their charge, and boys know it, which is also part of their appeal.

Of these, Just Disgusting is my favorite, mostly because it seems the most chaotic. It opens with a list of "101 Really Disgusting Things" many of which will be featured in the book, though some are just there for the extreme gross-out factor. You put two or more boys in a room and ask them to come up with a list of things they find disgusting and this would be pretty close. And this is the charm (?) and brilliance (!) of what Griffiths is about, because he seems to be able to access those moments when boys are totally unguarded and uncensored. Most adults would agree that many of the things on the list are, truly, disgusting, but the difference between adults and kids is that we no longer talk about such things, but not kids. For the middle school reader much of this is still fresh territory and a valuable currency during recess and on the playground.  

Sometimes the stories drag, but only because they follow the beating-a-dead-horse rule of schoolyard storytelling. The internal editor in my adult head was thinking of all sorts of ways to shorten the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure parody of "Cake of Doom" or the annoying sibling story "Shut Up!" but to do so would remove their authenticity. In precisely the same way that adults quickly tie of the way children will drag out something they find amusing, these stories seem almost designed to serve as adult repellent.  

Coupled with these stories are the spot illustrations that are all over the margins and threaten to crowd out the text, or at least overshadow it. In the same way that MAD magazine includes the "marginal" art of Sergio Aragones, the Just books include short comic strips, illustrations of key points in the text, flipbooks in the corners, and in the case of "Two Brown Blobs" a full comic representation of a story set in a bathtub (use your imagination about those blobs, and you'll be right). Even the page numbers have a bit of story running through them as they are surrounded by a duck who goes through some pretty unusual and, yes, disgusting tribulations of his own. All this visual anarchy might seem a distraction, but it's the sort of distraction that gives the weaker reader a chance to pause without putting the book down, which encourages them further to keep reading. 

Other books in the series speak for themselves: Just Annoying, Just Joking, Just Shocking, Just Crazy, Just Wacky, Just Stupid, all featuring tales of Andy, his sister Jen, their parents, and Andy's friend Danny who is nowhere near as smart as Andy. And Andy is pretty smart, Andy Griffith that is. He knows the territory and he knows how to mine it. Author of The Cat on the Mat Is Flat in addition to The Day My Butt Went Psycho and other series, Griffiths is the perfect go-to author for boys who have graduated from Captain Underpants and don't mind a little more story than picture in their diets...

If the adults are willing to let them read for pleasure.

Friday, August 12

The Witch Who Wasn't

by Jane Yolen  
Illustrated by Arnold Roth  
Macmillan 1964  

At a convention for witches, sweet young Isabel doesn't think she has what it takes to win the Spelling Bee...  

I'll be honest, I checked this out from my library because of Arnold Roth. That and the hope that by checking out the one sole remaining copy of this book in my library system that it might survive another year's weeding.

At 700 years old, Isabel is a young witch (apparently witches only age one year for every one hundred they are alive), and is finally old enough to attend the witch convention. Only she isn't a very good witch when it comes to spells, she simply couldn't create anything evil. Her cauldron smelled of sugar and spice, her attempts to create snakes turned to cakes, bats became cats, and bugs became things one could hug. In short, Isabel was too nice to be a bad witch.

At the Witches' Convention when it came time for the spelling bee while the older, more experienced witches drew spells that conjured up horrible beasties all Isabel could manage was a tiny mouse. This, of course, was the most horrible thing of all, sending all the other witches jumping onto chairs and hiding behind each other until the thing could be taken away. That Isabel was different, and that made her extraordinary.

This is one of those old fashioned picture storybooks, a wordy tale that today would be turned into a book for young readers and not a picture book at all.  Not that the story doesn't lend itself to illustration only that "They" who decide such things have declared that picture book readers no longer have the patience for a book over 500 words (if that). And I'll grant, the story might benefit from some tightening, the character development could use a little more focus, but so what. There is little to the story as it is that feels like it's pushing 50 years old and Roth's illustrations are as delightfully demented as usual.

I understand there was a sequel, Isabel's Noel, but sadly that title seems to have fallen under a bad spell and made to disappear.

Monday, August 1

Secret Circus

by Johanna Wright 
Neal Porter Books / Roaring Brook Press 

Only the mice know, and they aren't telling...

In Paris there is a circus, a very secret circus, a very tiny circus, that only the mice know about. They ride a hot air balloon to a merry-go-round long after the people have gone to bed and find their way to the circus where they snack on left-behind snacks and enjoy the show. When it's over the mice return home safe with their secret and a conspiratorial wink that begs the reader to keep the secret safe.  

Using the very simple repetition of "Only the mice know..." followed by the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the circus Wright opens up the story to the charming illustrations. For the mice this secret circus is to be the event of the season and much is made of getting there as the circus itself, which is how it is with most highly anticipated events.

The economy of text is well matched with playful paintings that have the loose feel of cartoons on canvas. Wright paints in a transparent style that gives the effect of watercolor on textured canvas, both child-like and tactile.


I know this is a deceased horse to flog, but looking the illustrations I was reminded of the warmth and connection the eye makes with art made by human hands. I'm not in for bashing digital illustration but in looking through Secret Circus I couldn't stop thinking about how impossible it would be to capture the same mood in pixels. This leads me to thinking about books and the coming digital delivery devices and how much will be lost and retained in the transition. Would these illustrations maintain their charm on a digital screen? There's no reason to think they wouldn't, but with forced digital elements -- animation, pan and zoom, music and sound effect -- something would be lost. Looking at art in a museum isn't enhanced by music or shifts in lighting, and that, ultimately, s what leads me to think that books will always be with us. Artists will always take hand to medium, and despite being able to view the finished work as a digital upload we will still have that desire to see the thing in person, before us, to swim amid the subtleties in its presence.

So, yeah.