This is a favourite from my own childhood, and now that my daughter loves it just as much, I appreciate its timelessness.
I only have the old version, published 1969 by Scholastic. The pictures by satirist Robert Osborn fit the story perfectly. (Osborn was a direct influence on the Dilbert cartoons.) It appears the book has been rewritten and reillustrated, and the later edition seems to include more modern fears. For example, the fear of a friend moving away, in a more mobile, modern world. This page doesn’t exist in the earlier edition:
The hamster page doesn’t exist in the original, either:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Florence Parry Heide (rhyming with tidy) sometimes wrote under the pen name of Alex B. Allen, when she collaborated with other authors. I’d love to sit down and ask her what was behind the choice of a male name — was it a response to industry sexism? (The same kind that made J.K. Rowling publish using initials rather than the ultra-feminine name of ‘Joanne’?)
She lived from 1919 until 2011, which confirms my theory that being a children’s author is almost a recipe for a long life. (Beverly Cleary, for instance, recently turned 100.) Florence started getting published at the age of 48, presumably after her children had become independent. (She had five all up.) I’m not sure how long she had been writing before getting published, but I guess she would have been quite busy running the household, so she may not have picked up the pen until she was in her late forties.
Over the course of her lifetime Florence wrote over 100 works, including poems and songs. She is best known for the Treehorn books, with Edward Gorey.
INSPIRATION FOR THE STORY
Florence Parry Heide wrote SOME THINGS ARE SCARY, a humorous look at childhood bugaboos, more than thirty years ago. “I had finished another book and was in the mood to write something else,” she says. “I decided to get some kindling from the garage, reached into the kindling box and–good grief!–grabbed something soft and mushy. I fled back to the house, scared to death.” A brave return visit to the kindling box revealed the object of terror to be nothing more than a discarded wet sponge, but the thought remained: some things are scary. As she recalls, “What scared me as a child was that I’d never learn how to be a real grownup–and the fact is, I never did find out how it goes.”
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION
Here’s an example of what a great cartoonist can do in just a few lines:
In the older picture books colour was limited too, due to cost. The pages which make use of ‘stock scary’ are white crayon on black paper. (Witches, pirates, skeletons and this scary monster, who bookends the narrative.)
When colour is used it’s loose and sketchy, as if a child has coloured the line drawings themselves. In fact this copy of the book does have some kid’s scribbles in it, but this is the illustrator’s. The unintended benefit of this style of cartooning is that it encourages kids to try drawing and colouring for themselves — art looks doable! (Of course, once you try it, it’s very hard.)
NOTES ON THE WRITING
One way of eliciting a laugh is to juxtapose the ordinary with the ridiculous. This book does that perfectly: Receiving socks as a present does not compare to the level of fear you’d experience when being eaten by a huge reptile.
The author’s syntax has a distinctively childlike quality to it, and it comes from ditching simple sentences in favour of an extra clause:
Holding onto someone’s hand
that isn’t your mother’s
when you thought it was
is scary [italics from the original]
The following is the page that elicits the biggest laugh from my daughter:
The even more hilarious thing is that after reading this book she did find an apple with a ‘moustache’ — certain imperfections in winter fruit do actually look like moustaches. I’m left with no doubt the author also once ate an apple with a moustache. It takes a genius writer to save these observations and position it in just the right part of the story — after many equally ridiculous scenarios, but which form genuine fears. This one is a scary example the child reader won’t have encountered before (probably).
Keep an eye out for a moustache next time you eat an apple.
Gross-out books are frequently classed as ‘trash‘ and rarely win the big awards, perhaps partly because they sell so well.
Gross-out books fall into the category of ‘carnivalesque’. In academic terms, these gross-out books might be called ‘carnivalesque-grotesque’.
Carnivalesque-grotesque narratives directly address the personal and sociocultural anxieties induced by knowledge of the vulnerability of both the individual and the social bodies. Vulgar, obscene and taboo-breaking forms of comedy in popular culture are neither a modern nor a culturally specific phenomenon. The presence of grotesque humour has been noted in youth culture, in particular, for at least the last few hundred years.
Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature
Howard Suber dates such stories from a much earlier time:
[Gross-out humour is] a tradition that goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. In Greek theatrical celebrations, there would be a cycle of three tragedies, followed by a satyr play or other comedy in which fart jokes, feces-throwing, giant erections, and bosoms were all incorporated in a way that would make any fourteen-year-old male die with laughter. […] While lots of tragedies were preserved, hardly any complete raunchy Greek comedies survive to this day. Even Aristotle’s book on comedy, which was the companion to his work on tragedy, was allowed to disappear from the face of the earth.
— Howard Suber, The Power of Film
Daniel then says that Bakhtin’s work has revealed the use-value of grotesque texts for medieval and Renaissance popular culture and Maria Tatar backed this up. In short, gross-out humour crosses time and culture. Why is it popular today?
The continuing appeal of this type of narrative attests tot he problematic cultural construction of body functions and fluids as abject and disgusting, the importance of the inside/outside dualism in both individual and social psyches, and the psychological and social need to overcome abjection in order that society can function normally.
The Aldi Revolting Rhymes Controversy
If you were a child reader in the eighties perhaps you remember this book with this cover — I was also gifted the sequel, Dirty Beasts and derived much enjoyment from both books at about age 8. I have clear memories of reading these poems to me parents, who laughed and laughed, and I felt so much pride at my performance it was as if I’d crafted these poems myself. That said, I was always a little wary of them. In one of the poems one of the young heroines ‘pulls a pistol from her knickers’ and I remember that line perplexed me: What is the obsession with little girls’ knickers? I wondered. Why are girls’ knickers more inherently funny than boys’ underpants, which are never mentioned? I wasn’t able to put it into words, but I was certainly aware of feminist issues even as an eight-year-old girl. The answer of course, to my unasked question: Girls’ knickers are more funny because girls are taught more body shame, so by exposing a female’s under garments you are exposing her basic humanity and opening her up as vulnerable and powerless, despite everything else she has achieved. This is actually the stuff that underpins rape culture.
Much more recently Aldi Australia offered Revolting Rhymes as a weekly special buy and parents about my age flocked to the store and bought this classic for their own children, only to get home and realise that culture has changed a bit since the 80s, and some weren’t too happy about the word ‘slut’, which has changed irreversibly in meaning. (Did people in the 80s still remember its original meaning though — in which slut refers to a slovenly woman who can’t keep the house clean?)
There was of course the usual backlash against Aldi after they made the decision to stop selling the books, with consumers criticising ‘censorship’ from do-gooders.
In truth, the word ‘slut’ is representative of the much wider gender problems in this particular gross-out books, and even modern gross-out books have their issues.
Carolyn Daniel points out in her academic work Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature that gross-out books are written for children, especially boys, and writing about bums is almost licence to print money. I think this is rather overstating the case — if you’ve ever read a really bad example of a gross-out book, written by someone who thinks that all you have to do is write a whole heap of the most disgusting stuff you can imagine, you’ll see that the best-selling gross-out books do still have plots, and plots are never easy no matter the genre, otherwise everyone would be a bestseller.
Since Daniel’s criticism was published (2006) she would not be surprised to see the continuing success of the Andy Griffiths series The Day My Bum Went Psycho, which I have to admit, is surprisingly clever as a spoof given the title. Until I picked it up I wondered how on earth it was possible to write an entire novel that could live up to the cover image:
It’s even a TV series now. The book is basically a spoof of a war story, and manages dual audience humour, which only readers familiar with war story tropes would understand. I’m no fan of the book myself, and my daughter lost interest, but I can see the appeal. As you can see, I’m one of the conflicted.
Have We Made Up Our Minds About These Books? Really?
The Andy Griffiths books are probably found on the shelves of every public Australian school library. So a friend of mine was confused when her then six-year-old daughter, having just finished reading The Day My Bum Went Psycho, get into big trouble — along with a group of friends — when they were taken to the computer lab for research and did a google search for ‘worlds biggest bum’. It seems we’re all a bit confused about what is okay and isn’t okay for kids. “Oh no! They’re googling bums! Butt it’s okay, everyone’s got a bum…Bums are perfectly natural But what if the parents find out about this and we get into serious trouble! Also, Andy Griffiths! And at least the boys are reading something.”
Attitudes To Gross-out Books
One popular argument: As long as my boys (in particular) are reading, I don’t care what they’re reading.
Addendum: If kids are enjoying reading it must be good for them, both for their emotional health and for their decoding skills. Also, reading trash is a gateway to reading good literature when they get round to it.
A counter argument: Funny, light, popular books can still be harmful. Reading bad books is perhaps even worse than watching a lot of high-quality TV.
I’m inclined to go with the latter, not because I think kids are already gross enough and don’t need bad behaviour encouraged (I don’t believe it works like that) but because the messages under the surface are actually more powerful than the top layer of story. This is exactly why all the award winning books are heavy on metaphor.
Are There Good Things To Come Out Of Gross-out Books?
Can the grotesque images in carnivalesque texts contain any subversive potential at all? According to Kristeva they can: such narratives are able to “lay bare, under the cunning, orderly surface of civilizations, the nurturing horror that [socio-cultural systems] attend to pushing aside by purifying, systematizing, and thinking.” In other words, for children, carnivalesque-grotesque material can reveal what adults are trying to suppress and it makes a move toward deconstructing sociocultural systems and laying bare their values.
Problems With Gross-out Books
what these narratives do not reveal is the underlying misogynistic discourse that form the basis for such systems and values and, in fact, I think they may work (perhaps through the jouissance they evoke) to normalize such discourses.
Daniel uses Fungus the Bogeyman as an example, but this is not a book I’d like to delve too deeply into because my adult self is easily repulsed by such stories.
Bakhtin also thinks the problem with subversive humour is that at first glance it’s all ‘Look how subversive and transgressive we are’, but when you look a little more closely it’s all about preserving the social norm.
These stories are actually pretty moralistic:
Laughter itself…arguably stems from a culturally derived sense of humor and grotesque humor is, therefore, a licensed affair. … there are norms that define what is funny, that determine the “domain of the laughable and ridiculous.” These norms…demand that “mockery take such a form that it reveals its limits and thereby pays homage to that which is mocked.” … one of the most important functions of the carnivalesque children’s text is its didacticism, confirming through a dialectic of high and low aesthetics what is considered eternal and transcendent and what is temporal and material. Children’s carnivalesque texts are … transgressive of such things as social authority [and] received paradigms of behaviour and morality but by transgressing them they also confirm them. “Carnivalesque texts, by breaking boundaries, explore where they properly lie.”
It is vital to clarify that sociocultural taboos exist because of social and psychological fears concerning the abject/grotesque functions of the body. The fears exist because of misogynist individualistic cultural discourses that define the abject. These discourses define the abject as as an intrinsically maternal/feminized concept. The ability to recognize the abject is … “a condition of individual needs to recognize the abject and to suppress it, to achieve repressed or unspeakable condition. However, while the abject can be recognized and suppressed, it cannot ever be fully obliterated, but always “hovers at the borders of our existence, threatening the apparently settled unity of the subject with disruption and possible dissolution. … Grotesque narratives…work conservatively to justify the taboo status of the abject and to confirm the otherness of the maternal/female body. They are not, therefore, radically transgressive/subversive but, rather, serve patriarchal hegemonic interests.
Obviously, with an abstract passage like that, you need some examples.
Returning to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, Daniel takes Dahl’s version of Goldilocks (click for full version) as an example:
The language used in grotesque narratives for children is generally not coarse and abusive (unlike their own texts) because it is written and licensed by adults. Stories written for them in these genres often contain language that might be categorized as within the realms of mild taboo, designed to titillate, rather than shock. The language itself reinforces adult authority–children all know plenty of abusive language (as their play-rhymes clearly show) but its very absence from their literature didactically reinforces the taboo. Roald Dahl directly refers to this in his version of “Goldilocks” in which the little girl, he suggests, is a less than pleasant character. She has just sat upon and broken baby bear’s chair:
A nice girl would at once exclaim
“Oh dear! Oh heavens! What a shame.”
Not Goldilocks, she begins to swear
She bellows, “What a lousy chair.”
And used one disgusting word
That luckily you’ve never heard
(I dare not write it, even hint it
Nobody would ever print it)
It is interesting to note Dahl’s judgement upon that “nice girls” say and to see how he frames his protagonist by implying that her abusive language is so foul that it is unprintable. She is therefore definitely not a nice girl and is deemed to be abject. The readers are nice, however, because Dahl tells them that they have “never heard” the offending word. As the word is not mentioned this is a pretty safe bet. The text explicitly and implicitly signals suitable language for children’s use. Carnivalesque texts for children often include playful intrusion by the narrator as Dahl’s does. This draws attention to the social forces which…determine the relationship between signs and things, reinforcing what is socially desirable with regard to cultural and linguistic mores. Furthermore, the reader is thus suddenly and deliberately situated outside the text, by the narrator’s intrusion, and so is discouraged from empathizing with the protagonist. Indeed, the reader is encouraged to disapprove of Goldie’s language, to take the culturally legitimate stance, to be mildly amused but also shocked, to be be ultimately disapproving and condemning. Dahl uses the technique again to condemn Goldilocks, once more reinforcing the condemnation with mention of the abject. Goldilocks has climbed into baby bear’s bed with her shoes on:
Most educated people choose
To rid themselves of socks and shoes
Before they clamber into bed
But Goldie didn’t give a shred
Her filthy shoes were thick with grime
And mud and mush and slush and slime
Worse still, upon the heel of one
Was something that a dog had done
I say once more, what would you think
If all this horrid dirt and stink
Was smeared upon your eiderdown
By this revolting little clown
Here the narrator directly addresses readers and seeks their opinion (“what would you think?”). In employing this tactic, Dahl further distances readers from Goldilocks, refusing to allow identification with and implicitly condemning her activity and power. Dahl’s work is openly didactic, reinforcing his personal notions of appropriate behavior for girls. This is cleverly achieved through his undoubted wit, word play, and by stretching the limits of the taboos he is ultimately reinforcing.
It’s important to add that this is just one example of the misogyny that runs right through the gross-out category of books for children. Think of the short stories of Paul Jennings and count the number of female characters. When you do find female characters in gross-out books, what are they doing? Are they breaking stereotypically female roles or are they transgressing them.
R.L. Stine uses visceral descriptions in his books for a middle grade audience. Who does the shrieking and who does the saving in the R.L. Stine books? Are girls punished for becoming powerful and active saviours?
The One Big Lie Per Story
I have a theory that the more transgressive children’s stories are in the gross-out sense, the more carefully they stick to stereotypically gender roles. I’ve certainly seen this at work in movies, and it applies equally to the most mind-bending sci-fi and fantasy. It’s almost as if there’s a rule of writing: The more the audience is expected to travel on a highly imaginative journey, the more closely authors stick to a 1950s version of society — expecting readers to imagine both a completely different planet and one in which women are not cooking everyone’s breakfast is almost too much to expect.
My 7-year-old daughter expressed disgust at The Disgusting Sandwich and said she didn’t want to read it again, but she brought it to me again a few days later. This time, she knew what to expect, and managed to enjoy it.
Most kids I know love to be grossed out. There’s a narrow window in childhood in which this is the case. It must come soon after learning that some things are disgusting — that one can’t pick your nose and eat the booger, or taste-test dead flies on the window sill.
I Want My Hat Back is one of a trilogy of books written and illustrated by Jon Klassen. The plots are not linked and the characters are different. But they all feature hats. The other two are This Is Not My Hat and We Found A Hat.
When I read an opinion piece last week on the decreasing length of picturebooks from Elizabeth Bluemle at Publishers Weekly, the books of Jon Klassen immediately sprang to mind, especially at this paragraph:
Why are we so bent on brief? Is it because children have shorter attention spans? (They do. We all do. Or do we?) Is it because parents are working harder than ever and are too tired to face long reading sessions at bedtime with their kids? Possibly. Or is it because we are currently experiencing a trend of short, meta, funny picture books that don’t unfold a story with characters so much as riff on a clever idea? That’s a teeny piece of it, surely.
I Want My Hat Back is also interesting for the variety of reader responses who think that picture books must star morally upright characters; that children are vessels waiting to be filled with good examples, incapable of questioning moral grey areas.
“Lampshading” is one of my favorite and least favorite writer tricks: It’s where you acknowledge a shortcoming in your plot through some dialogue, usually jokey, as a way of winking at the audience and moving on.Yes, I know this is a giant hole in my story, but I couldn’t come up with a solution, so let’s have characters make a meta-statement on it, and we’ll all feel clever then, because meta is fancy. An inoffensive lampshade would be when, say, Lost characters toward the end of season 1 remark on how strange it is that none of those other background people on the island seem to do much except follow the main characters from beach to cave and back again. An annoying lampshade would be if someone on Lost during the final season said, “Hey, too bad none of these plot strands that people have dedicated their entire lives to decoding will never amount to anything. Talk about lost! Ha ha!” Of course, no one really did that, but it wasn’t because it wasn’t true.
Lampshade a word used for situations in storytelling where the concerns, criticisms and arguments of the audience are answered in the text itself to assuage any disbelief and therefore frustration a reader or viewer might possess.
By underscoring points of possible contention, usually humorously, the suspension of disbelief is retained. Often used to account for implausible developments, ridiculous motivations, bizarre twists and illogical situations, a lampshade can also cover obviously cribbed plot elements by having the author acknowledge through a character that “This is just like…”A lampshade can be used to explain threads that may have lain dormant, and often prods at the fourth wall by having characters address the audience, or realities outside their own existence.
Also known as Spotlighting, sometimes as ‘Cousin Larry Trick’.
This joke would fall under ‘jokes about jokes’, the eleventh category of Scott Dikkers’ taxonomy of humour. (Scott Dikkers runs The Onion.)
GUARD #1: What, ridden on a horse?
GUARD #1: You’re using coconuts!
GUARD #1: You’ve got two empty halves of coconut and you’re bangin’ ’em together.
– Monthy Python and the Holy Grail, to lampshade the fact that production could not afford horses for a medieval movie.
And an example from science comedy:
“…If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts; Just repeat to yourself it’s just a show, you should really just relax…”
— From the theme song to Mystery Science Theater 3000, effectively ironing over the pesky scientific impossibilities.
Hey, why don’t we just…
In the psychological thriller Panic Room starring Jodi Foster and the young Kristen Stewart, it isn’t until the end of the action, after Jodie Foster’s character has left the panic room and smashed all of the cameras that one of the bad guys says by way of lampshading, “Hey, why didn’t we do that?”
This is a bit of a hack, and I guess the screenwriters couldn’t see another way past this plot knot, because the last thing you want an audience to say is, “Why don’t they just…” If you’re going to hae a character say it, there had better be a good reason why the characters can’t just do that very thing.
Lampshading Unlikely Writing Skills In Non-Literary First Person Narrators
James Wood points out that lampshading is sometimes used by the canonical writers to explain why their heroes seem to have such a lyrical style. What he is describing is a type of lampshading:
Humbert Humbert [in Lolita] famously announces that he has a fancy prose style, as a way, surely, of explaining his creator’s overdeveloped prose. Bellow likes to inform us that his characters are “first-class noticers”.
– How Fiction Works
Hey, why doesn’t she know that already?
In Carrie, Stephen King embarks upon some heavy lampshading before the reader will believe that his heroine knew nothing about periods, even at the age of 16. He talks about how fundamentally Christian the mother is, and prudish. In the 2013 movie we are told that Carrie has been homeschooled until recently.
Lampshading To Mask Inconsistencies In A Storyworld
Gregory Maguire lampshades in Wicked.
Even as he rejects Baum’s concepts, Maguire does an admirable job of explaining away the multiple inconsistencies in the Baum books—particularly in explaining how people can eat meat in a land where animals talk, teach and attend dinner parties, and in explaining the varied and completely contradictory histories of Oz. (As I’ve noted, these inconsistencies never bothered me much as a kid, and I expect that they can be waved away by “magic,” but they clearly at least nagged at Maguire.) In Maguire’s Oz, some Animals can talk, and some animals cannot, and the conflicting histories of Oz are woven into its religious practices and propaganda. This absolutely works for me.
The need to lampshade the fact animals eat meat is one faced by most (if not all) writers whose characters are in animal form. Most humans are happy to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, but what if your characters are pigs and chickens? What do you do then? You either have them eat jam on toast, fruits and cheeses (see the illustration of a breakfast scene in Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride).
As for Maguire, for some fans of The Wizard Of Oz, he didn’t do nearly enough explaining when he wrote Wicked. Here’s an excerpt from the most-liked review currently on Goodreads:
Things That I Really Wish Gregory Maguire Had Bothered To Explain That Might Have Made Wicked Worth Reading:
-Why Elphaba is green
-Why Elphaba cannot touch water
-The “Philosophy Club” which seemed to be some sort of bizarre sex club which was introduced towards the middle of the story, and then never mentioned again
-How it’s physically possible that Elphaba gave birth to a son, but may actually not have, because she doesn’t remember it. (Maguire’s explanation is that she was drugged up on sedatives for the entire pregnancy and therefore cannot tell if she actually had a kid. Um…listen, Greg, I know you’re a guy, but I assure you, there is no drug on this earth or on Oz that makes a woman unable to remember giving birth)
-What the hell the Clock of the Time Dragon was, and how it’s able to give puppet shows revealing the Deep Dark Secrets of characters’ pasts
-Why Elphaba wanted the magic slippers so much
-The backstory of the Scarecrow and why he hated the Wicked Witch of the West. (The Tin Man and Lion are explained, but I guess by the time he had to come up with a story for the Scarecrow, Maguire had used up all his creative juices. As a result, the Scarecrow just appears with the others at the witch’s castle, and even Elphaba can’t figure out why the hell he’s there)
Lampshading For An Audience Overly Au Fait With Story and Narrative
In her werewolf novel The Gift, Anne Rice lampshades the fact that she is using tropes from older stories, while also taking the opportunity to complain about horrible werewolf stories in pop culture. (If you know what she had to say about Twilight, you won’t be surprised):
In most of the movies the gift didn’t have much of a purpose. In fact it was unclear exactly why cinema werewolves went after their victims. All they did was rip random people to pieces. They didn’t even drink the blood or eat the meat. They didn’t behave like wolves at all. They behaved as if… they had rabies. True, in The Howling they had fun making out but other than that what was the good of being a movie werewolf? You howled at the moon; you couldn’t remember what you did and then somebody shot you.
— Anne Rice, The Gift, p90