The joys of the disgusting
Anna Ryan Punch, Viewpoint, Vol 10 No 4 Summer 2002
Like many readers of children’s books who are not children themselves, I once possessed what I considered to be a healthy disdain for the ‘poo-and-vomit’ sector. You know the ones, the gross-out books that kids will insist on loving, just to annoy those of us with more lofty tastes. I say once possessed, because this was before I attended the Fun 4 Kids Festival in Warrnambool, and sat through four sessions given by Andy Griffiths, author of the JUST! series (Just Annoying!, Just Tricking!, etc) and The Day My Bum Went Psycho. (I didn’t see four sessions because I’m obsessed with Andy; I was one of the booksellers permanently stationed in the Literature Room). Something happened to my disdain during those four sessions, something very disturbing, and worse still – enjoyable.
This is the tale of my crossing to the dark (brown) side.
I confess that I had never read any of Andy’s books prior to hearing his talk (four times), but by the number of children crammed into the Literature Room, I guessed that at least some element of the poo-and-vomit factor had to be operating. As the rather good-looking Mr Griffiths moved to the front of the room and announced that he was going to read from his new list: ‘101 Really disgusting things’, I rolled my eyes. I had guessed right.
Andy began to read. Yes, there was vomit in the list, there were maggots, there was vomit-with-maggots-in-it. Children rolled around on the floor wetting themselves with laughter. Some of them got far too excited and began to chime in with their own scatological suggestions. I wrinkled my nose.
But then, at about number fifty-one on the list during the third session, something happened.
I kept laughing.
At around number seventy-three I began to groan in unison with the crowd. I didn’t understand. This was more confusing than puberty. What was happening to me? There are people who will try to rationalise my reaction. Some will say that Andy’s rather-good-lookingness had more than a little to do with it. (They might well say that. I couldn’t possibly comment.) Others might point out that I HAD been stationed in a room teeming with wound-up and over-tired children for several days, and simply could not be expected to maintain my usual sanity. But I fear the truth was far worse.
It was disgusting stuff. It was ridiculous stuff. But it was clever. And it was... funny. VERY funny.
I leaned forward in my chair to listen to the choose-your-own-adventure story which followed the list, ignoring customers who loudly whispered that I hadn’t given them any change. I wanted to hear what would happen to me in the story after I had shredded my fingers in the blender and watched the dog re-eat its own vomit. I was hooked.
There was a strange mixture of ingenuity, absurdity and repulsiveness in what Andy was reading. The boundaries of common disgustingness were approached, broken, and had slimy stuff smeared all over them. And it worked. I thought about the plethora of gross-out books that exist for children and it occurred to me that every theme in children’s literature is done both terribly well and terribly badly by different writers. Why should the poo-and-vomit sector be any different? Maybe, just maybe, there was a class of well-written, effective and mind-bogglingly disgusting books out there. Andy had shown me the way.
Bearers of the ‘high children’s literature’ banner, hear my story of awakening. The joys of the gross-out may not necessarily be the mortal enemy of children’s literature (or the adults who read it). It’s true, grossness CAN and often is used cheaply and clumsily to cheat children into thinking a book worthy. But equally badly used are magic, romance, confrontational plots, and especially now, WIZARDS. In the hands of some authors, such as Andy Griffiths, the art of the disgusting can be an inventive and wonderfully ridiculous way to something original, effective, and best of all, very, very funny.
Go on, swallow your proud disdain and discover your disgusting side. I did.
It was hilarious.