Playing the Fool
Science gets scatological in the hands of an author with a healthy respect for his inner child
by Phil Brown, Brisbane News, April 27–May 3, 2011
Best-selling Australian children’s author Andy Griffiths hopes his new book might inspire a new generation of doctors. He does, however, also confess that What Body Part is That? (Pan Macmillan, $14.99), which is illustrated by his regular partner in literary crime, Terry Denton, is a bit light on in the scientific fact department. Very light on, actually, and that’s the point.
“When I wrote it I imagined I was a student who hasn’t done any research but has to turn in his homework,” Andy says when we meet at the Hilton Brisbane. “He has to puddle along sounding authoritative while saying nothing. I remember giving a talk on current affairs in Year 11 and I just wrote two pages of long-worded nonsense. When I gave it to the teacher he just smiled slightly and gave me a good mark but I don’t know if I fooled him or not.”
That premise, of babbling on about nothing, was also inspired by his literary hero, the late American writer and recluse J.D. Salinger, author of the “quintessential 20th-century novel”, The Catcher in the Rye.
“His protagonist, Holden Caulfield, does a similar thing with an essay about the Egyptians, although his housemaster takes him to task over it,” Andy says. That literary reference may or may not impress the critics who respond to the 49-year-old former teacher’s work with bemusement and sometimes disdain. His books, such as the Just! series, The Day My Bum Went Pyscho, What Bumosaur is That? and The Bad Book, among others, are replete with fart and derriere jokes that might thrill boys in particular but sometimes the literati are not amused.
“Reviews of my books will often say they are very amusing but that they shouldn’t be mistaken for proper literature,” Andy says. “But I know that kids have discovered Shakespeare through Just Macbeth! and the play that preceded it, which was produced in conjunction with The Bell Shakespeare Company.”
Andy hopes children might be inspired by What Body Part is That? in the same way. And even though he confesses it is pseudo-scientific, it does contain certain unassailable facts. Take chapter one, entitled Head. “Your head sits on top of your neck,” Andy writes. “It has seven holes: two eye holes, two ear holes, two nose holes and one cake hole.” Now you can’t argue with that. Then there’s the chapter on pimples.
“Pimples are small, pus-packed protuberances that appear mostly on people’s faces and necks and sometimes on their posteriors. Pimple-popping ... provided the inspiration for the well-known pimple- popping poem, ‘Peter Pimple-popper Popped a Patch of Pus Packed Pimples’.”
All of this is accompanied by Terry Denton’s highly detailed, hilarious and often gross drawings. No body part is immune from the adolescent humour of these grown men who still behave like naughty boys. That is the secret of their success and one that British author Roald Dahl also used to connect with children.
“Roald Dahl created the blueprint as far as I’m concerned and what’s operating in his work is this scenario in which children are recognised for who they really are. With my books I think children read them and think ‘aha, someone else has these crazy thoughts too, not just me’. It’s very exciting for a child to realise that someone else thinks like them.”
Certainly whenever our son Hamish has had his head in an Andy Griffiths book there has been much chortling and delight.
“Another thing Roald Dahl said was that the best thing about being a children’s author is that your audience is just so enthusiastic,” Andy says. “And the laughter you give them motivates them to read more, which parents and teachers appreciate.”
As he says that we sense a presence and look up to see a boy with a copy of one of Andy’s books, which he asks the author to autograph. And as Andy does, smiles of delight spread across both faces.