As a child I was always attracted to books that combined pictures and words and contained huge helpings of silliness, fun and adventure. I could always rely on Dr. Seuss and MAD magazine for this, as well as the endlessly inventive Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
My grandmother also had a copy of Struwellpeter, a 150-year-old collection of German cautionary tales that showed, in full graphic horror, the unfortunate and often fatal consequences for children who failed to obey the rules their parents clearly set out for them. One girl plays with matches and ends up as a pile of ashes. A boy ignores his parent’s warning about how the long red-legged scissor man will cut his thumbs off if he persists with his habit of sucking his thumbs and—yep, you’d never guess—the long red-legged scissor man comes and cuts his thumbs off. Yes, horrific, I know, but so over-the-top I couldn’t help finding it all a bit funny.
As a result of these very fortunate encounters with books, nobody ever had to lecture me about the importance of reading. I already knew that there was absolutely no predicting what might happen when you turned the page of a book and I read willingly and voraciously. I had plenty of adventures in the real world, but books offered another whole realm to explore and have fun in.
When I became an English teacher in the late 1980s, however, I couldn’t help noticing there wasn’t nearly the range of books perfect for reluctant readers that there are today—which is one of the reasons why I began trying to write some of my own stories.
One modern book I encountered, however, which evoked the exact experience of my childhood reading was Jon Scieszka’s and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales. The irreverent playfulness of the fairy tale parodies and the joyful inventiveness of the illustrations suggested that I wasn’t the only one out there who took funny children’s books seriously. I’ll never forget the surprise and sheer delight of reading the last two sentences of ‘The Really Ugly Duckling’: “Well, as it turned out, he was just a really ugly duckling. And grew up to be just a really ugly duck. The End.”
Not too long after I encountered Dav Pilkey’s wonderful Captain Underpants series with their hilarious—and ridiculously long—titles. I think the thing I liked the best about them was that not only were the plots fast moving and very silly, but the text was presented in short bursts with a picture on almost every page … and every now again the book would break into a comic strip. Reading is hard work for an emerging reader, and the judicious and liberal use of illustrations can help them absorb a lot of information at a glance, making the whole process much more gratifying and enjoyable. Dav Pilkey’s books have the energy and immediacy of an animated cartoon and this is no easy thing to achieve on the page. Truly brilliant.
In 2008 I encountered Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid and it didn’t take me long to realize it was the work of somebody intimately acquainted with childhood—the good, the bad and the ugly. Greg Heffley does not always do the right or admirable thing, but he is always honest. Kinney extracts enormous amounts of humor from the disparity between what we—and often Greg himself—know is the ‘correct’ way to behave or ‘nice’ thing to say and the way he actually behaves. Like Dav Pilkey, Jeff Kinney knows how to maintain an even balance between text and illustration, which gives the books an enormous readability. And I love the fact that sometimes the illustrations contradict what Greg Heffley is telling us, which credits the reader with the intelligence to work out what is really true, and that Greg can’t always be trusted.
I know if I’d encountered The Stinky Cheeseman, Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid as a child I would have devoured them all alive, and it makes me very happy to know that these books are out there making it easy for children to become life-long lovers of reading … and fun. (And if they have a treehouse to read them in, then all the better!)
Borrow The 52-Story Treehouse from your school or public library. Whenever possible, please support independent bookshops.