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.


Sarah Stevenson said...

The Day My Butt Went Psycho! I can see why kids would want to pick that one up for the title alone. :D

Anonymous said...

Hey David, again, a lot to think about and of value, but I think you're undervaluing boys. My little guy is not a good reader at all, and it's not one of his favorite things to do, but I think you're wrong that boys don't care about character or plot. In fact, I think one of the main things that makes the Captain Underpants series so appealing is not just it's outrageous adult-repellant potty humor--it's that the George and Harold are so absolutely relatable to a certain type of rowdy little boy who is always getting in trouble. It's wish-fullfilment because they get to pay back all the mean teachers and be in control.

Aidin's favorite books include: Captain Underpants, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Arrival, The Savage, Owly, Bone, Pippi Longstockings, the Spiderwick Chronicles, and Sideways Stories from Wayside School. Several "boy books" in there, lots of potty humor, but also plenty that's really of value (and I happen to think that Captain Underpants has lots of literary merit.) Don't short-change boys. Let them read what they want, but be ready for them choose both "good" and "bad" books.


david elzey said...

Pam, as always, I think we're on the same team here, but a couple of points suggest clarification.

I think we can agree that a large part of the problem comes down to choices, and sometimes I feel the deck is stacked against boys. I know several bookstores -- indie bookstores, children's bookstores -- who, as a matter of principle, do not carry any of Andy Griffiths' books. They also don't carry the humorous nonfiction Horrible Histories books. The reasons are as clear as wanting only to carry the "best" in children's literature to the more opaque complaint that shelf space is limited and that means only carrying quality books and known sellers.

Also, in schools boys are steered away from these books and others like them either through curriculum requirements (the shift toward reading for meaning from proscribed texts) or through personal teacher bais. And let's not get started with the parents who feel that their boys should be reading classics like Dafoe and Stevenson because they need the "basics," insisting that anything less is a waste of time/education.

As a corollary point, I don't generally think about the audience for the blog as being aimed at boy readers but instead at boy influencers, people who have the ability to get a book in front of a boy. In conversation it either shocks or offendeds me (depending on the attitude of the situation) to hear adults belittling their own son's choices and preferences based on the material that interested them. If anyone is undervaluing boys it's parents and teachers and librarians -- the influencers -- who refuse to allow boys to be boys. My goal is to shed some light in the dark.

So, yes, when boys have the opportunities to choose, over time they will choose literary AND junk (or good/bad, or high/lowbrow, or whatever), but to get there boys need the freedom to make those choices and, importantly, that freedom should extend a lot further into their childhood than is currently allowed.

Martha Rodriguez said...

Hi David,
I think that when you have a reluctant reader you have to find that middle ground. Let them have their silly, disgusting fun and then encourage them to read other, more sofisticated books, magazines or even comic books with characters and storylines that interest them.

As the mom of two now-grown boys, I remember the fun they had with Mad Libs. It was all giggles all the time. Every noun and verb was a body function or a disgusting sound. Later, they'd settle down with a nice book. Those boys turned out just fine.

I say if adults are allowed to read about the latest (enter your city here) Housewife or celebrity, then kids should be allowed to have a silly time of it, too (but don't let them read about housewives or about 98% of celebrities!).

Martha Rodriguez said...

Hi David,
I think when you have a reluctant reader you have to find a middle ground. Let the boys have a little bit of gross, disgusting fun but also encourage them to pick up some other, more sophisticated books, magazines or even comic books with plots, topics and characters that appeal to them.

As a mom of two now-grown boys, I remember how much fun they had with Mad Libs. It was all giggles, all the time. Every noun, verb and even name was a body function or a disgusting sound and those two boys turned out just fine.

So a little from column A and a little from column B won't hurt a thing. As long as they are reading and you see growth in what they choose to read and a true love of reading building up in them, let them have their fun.

Nicole Valentine said...

Hey David - thought provoking as usual! Do you think there's a tipping point age-wise here, where boys actually begin to be interested in the more nuanced craft elements?

david elzey said...


i think that tipping point is, like many boys, a function of their interest, culture, etc. like puberty (though i'm not saying it's biological) i think boys like to discover things at their own speed, and when they do they tend to stick longer.

when i trained to be a teacher many moons ago i was told to expect that boys would try to monopolize class time by frantically wanting to be called on when they knew the answers. when they didn't they would slump down and hope to become invisible. teachers, i was warned, who insisted students (boy in particular) be forced to answer when they didn't feel comfortable to do so would, over time, turn against the class, against the teacher, against the subject. they could, potentially, be poisoned from learning. when students were allowed to join in at their own speed, at their own comfort level, they took it on as a badge of encouragement and would continue to remain engaged.

so this speak to the problem of social promotion in the school, but our interest here is getting and keeping boys reading. if i had to peg an age where i thought boys might become more interested in the nuances of the craft, if forced to, i would put it at around 14 or 15 -- a full three or four years later than most educational settings. there are many influences -- good teachers, an interest in the school newspaper, parental support, good libraries -- that will have an impact on this, but i also wouldn't rule out romantic interests. i remember one kid i knew who got all into beat poetry because a girl he liked was reading howl and thought he might enjoy it. after that he always had a book with him.

Ms. Yingling said...

I am putting these all on my list to purchase. I don't know how I missed them, although I do have a copy of The Day My Butt Went Psycho. Thanks for the heads up!