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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Humor

Karen Cushman, the Girl in Men’s Underwear

Karen Cushman

Karen Cushman

We welcome the opportunity to talk with Karen Cushman, Newbery Medal and Honor recipient for The Midwife’s Apprentice and Catherine, Called Birdy, as well as historical fiction set in the western United States. Her most recent novel is the fantasy Grayling’s Song. We look forward to talking with Karen because her sense of humor is always in play, something you’d expect from reading her books.

 Are you working on a new manuscript? (Care to offer a teaser)?

I’m struggling my way through a book set in San Diego in 1941, shortly before Pearl Harbor. Here’s the beginning, or the beginning at the moment:

Jorge lifted the slimy creature to his lips and bit it right between the eyes.

I shuddered as I watched. “Doesn’t that taste muddy and disgusting?”

“Nah,” he said, wiping mud from his mouth. “Is only salty. This way they don’t die but only sleep, stay fresh.” He threw the octopus into a bucket and slipped through the mud flats to another hole in the muck. He filled a baster from a mud-spattered Clorox bottle and squirted the bleach into a hole.

When the occupant slithered to the surface, Jorge pulled it out and bit it, too. “You want? Make good stew.”

I shook my head. I preferred fish that came in cans and was mixed with mayo and chopped celery.

 Elvis PresleyAre there particular memories of growing up that, looking back, you see as leading you toward a writing career?

My first 17 or so years seemed to be leading me to a writing career. I wrote all the time: poems, short stories, a 7-page novel, an epic poem cycle based on the life of Elvis (see the last question below). A lot of what I wrote was involved with creating a world I’d like to live in starring a person I’d like to be.

Are there three books you’d recommend for gift-giving in the upcoming holidays?

I asked my daughter, who works at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland and knows more about books than anyone. She recommended three illustrated nonfiction titles. I plan to buy them for myself.

  • Atlas Obscura (by Joshua Foer, Dylan Thuras, and Ella Morton). A fascinating tour guide to the strangest and most curious places in the world: glowworm caves in New Zealand, Turkmenistan’s 40-year hole of fire called the Gates of Hell, salt mines in Poland, a parasitology museum, bone museums in Italy.
  • David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work Now. Packed with information on the inner workings of everything from windmills to Wi-Fi, this extraordinary book guides readers through the fundamental principles of machines and shows how the developments of the past are building the world of tomorrow. 
  • In the Company of Women (by Grace Bonney). Photos and descriptions of inspiring, creative women across the world who forged their own paths and succeeded. 

Three book recommendations by Karen Cushman

What did you study in college?

I entered college as an English major but quickly became enamored of the Classics department because it was much smaller and more interesting and they had sherry parties every Friday afternoon. My final major was double—Greek and English.

Did you taking writing classes?

My university had a graduate creative writing major but there was only one course for undergraduates. I took it, hated it, and never went. People sat around and criticized each other’s work. Not for me. The night before the quarter was over, I stayed up all night and wrote twelve short stories. The professor commented that I seemed to have learned a lot during the class even though I never came to class. Go figure. That was my first and last writing class.

men's boxers What was your first job?

I worked in the men’s socks and shorts department of a Target-like store, where I was known as the girl in men’s underwear.

What’s your strongest memory of the 1950s?

Elvis. No question. I also remember looking at all the unhappy housewives on our suburban street, sipping martinis and making lunches, and feared I would end up like that.  

PS:  I didn’t.

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Marsha Wilson Chall and Jill Davis

I recently had the honor of interviewing Marsha Wilson Chall, the author of the new picture book, The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo, and her editor, Jill Davis.

Marsha Wilson ChallMarsha Wilson Chall grew up an only child in Minnesota, where her father told her the best stories. The author of many picture books, including Up North at the Cabin, One Pup’s Up, and Pick a Pup, Marsha teaches writing at Hamline University’s MFAC program in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lives on a small farm west of Minneapolis with her husband, dog, barn cats, and books.

Jill DavisJill Davis has been an executive editor in children’s books at HarperCollins since 2013. A veteran of children’s books, she began her career at Random House in 1992, and worked there at Crown and Knopf Books For Young Readers until 1996, after which she worked at Viking until 2005. After that, she held positions at both Bloomsbury and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She is the author of three picture books, editor of one collection of short stories, and has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University

Secret Life of Fiiggy MustardoMark: The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo came about in a different way than most picture books. You were asked to write a story based on illustrations of a character. Could you tell us about this process and a little about the story?

Marsha: You’re right that this story evolved differently than my others. My amazing editor, Jill Davis, sent me Alison Friend’s thumbnails of an adorable canine character she had named Figgy Mustardo in a variety of human-like poses and costumes. For me, it was love at first sight! So I set about the process of creating Figgy’s story based on my impressions of him through Alison’s art and then, via Jill, Alison’s written notions of his characterization and story ideas.

Alison FriendAn imaginative, spirited fellow, Alison visualized Figgy zipping through many adventures on his scooter. In the book, I took the liberty of changing the scooter to a race car and also cast Figgy as a rock star and a pizza chef who organizes and stars in a neighborhood rock concert, pizzeria, and stock car race with his animal friends. Lots of Figgy fun, but this did not a story make. I needed to know why these activities mattered to Figgy and how he grew as a character.

Secret Life of Figgy MustardoI also had to think about the nuts and bolts of how Figgy might transform from dog to dilettante. I was fairly certain of my own dog’s boredom and loneliness while our family is away, so I started my story exploration there. We all know that dogs, as social creatures, dislike being left alone and are often fraught with anxiety leading to certain not-so-flattering behaviors and/or the escape of sleep. A story with a sleeping dog would not be too interesting, so I chose the much more exciting, destructive route. What if Figgy ate things–any things–in his frustration, fell asleep, and dreamed about himself as a manifestation of what he ate? We all know “you are what you eat,” so in Figgy’s case, for example, he eats Mrs. Mustardo’s Bone Appetit magazine, falls asleep, and dreams of being Italian Pizza Chef Mustardo serving Muttsarello and Figaro pizzas to adoring gourmands. When he wakes, he knows his dream is a sign, so he makes a real one of his own, “Free Pizza,” and serves his entire animal neighborhood at Figgy’s Pizzeria.

Most importantly, I needed to develop a motivation for Figgy’s adventures; how were these events connected to him? What did they mean? How would they affect Figgy’s world outside and inside? The answer arrived in the form of loss; every animal neighbor came to Figgy’s concert and pizzeria and car race except Figgy’s family, the Mustardos, especially George (his boy). In desperation, Figgy creates the sign “Free Dog” to find a family who will talk and walk and play with him like all the other families he sees through his window. Where are the Mustardos? The family Mustardo arrives in time to show Figgy how much they care with a promise to take him wherever they can and to provide him companionship when they can’t in the form of new pup named Dot. Figgy and Dot go on to enliven the neighborhood with Free Shows nightly.

Mark: What kind of revising/editing process did you and Jill go through?

Marsha: Once I knew my character and his problem, I dashed off the story, sent it to Jill who loved it at first sight, then sat back satisfied with a good day’s work.

Ha! Not the way it happened, but I did write a first draft within a few days that Jill found promising. So many drafts later that I can’t even recall the original, Jill exercised plenty of patience waiting for the story she and Alison hoped I could write. I know she’ll protest my tribute, but I have never worked with an editor so open to my trial and error. Her abundant humor carried us through the process that I think would have otherwise overwhelmed me.

Mark: Will there be any more books with Figgy and his further adventures?

Marsha: Figgy hopes so and so do Jill, Alison, and I. For now, I hope Figgy wags his way into the hands and hearts of many human friends where he belongs.

WOOF!

Mark: How was this project different having a character first and then having to find a writer to tell his story?

The Secret Life of Figgy MustardoJill: It was kind of hard. The illustrator had invented this little dog who she wanted to be an adventurer—yet she wasn’t sure how to make the story happen. When I saw the dog, I thought of Marsha’s One Pup’s Up—and I knew how talented she was. Seemed like a slam dunk! But all of us—Marsha, myself, and the illustrator, Alison Friend, had  to share plenty of feedback, edit, and revise a bit before Marsha was able to tell both the story she envisioned as well as the story Alison had in mind. Marsha pictured Figgy at home, and really loved the idea of using signs. Alison seemed to feel Figgy was some kind of James Bond. So how were those two visions going to meet? They finally did when Marsha realized that Figgy would go to sleep and dream about his exciting alter-ego. And we all loved the idea. The book may seem a little bit sad because Figgy is always being left at home, but Marsha told it in such a great way that Figgy showed his grit! If he’s hungry, he eats what’s there—but then the magic happens and he goes to sleep and dreams of something related to what he ate. It’s so fun and so imaginative. I love what Marsha did with Figgy’s story, and Alison did, too.

Mark: What was it like to work with Marsha in this new role as editor after being her student in the MFA in Writing for Children program at Hamline University?

Jill: It felt very wonderful and natural. Marsha does not use intimidation as a tactic in general. She’s the rare combination of brilliant and super silly. That’s one reason she’s so loved at Hamline and in the continental United States, generally speaking.

There were times when she should have been frustrated or wanted to spit at me, but she was cool as a cucumber in the freezer in the North Pole. So professional and what I loved also about working with her is how much I learned. I learned how she makes use of repetition, alliteration, and very careful editing. I can be sloppy, but Marsha walked straight out of Strunk and White. She’s exact and wonderfully detail-oriented. She was also involved at the sketch stage. Actually at several sketch stages. We worked on the phone, we worked at Hamline, and we worked until we thought it felt perfect. And she loved it because she could use it in her teaching! And I just loved working with Marsha!

Mark:  Thank you Marsha and Jill for taking the time to tell us about your collaboration on The Secret Life of Figgy Mustardo. The book is now available at everyone’s local independent book store.

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Laughing All the Way

The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill BrysonI finished reading The Road to Little Dribbling over a week ago, and I’m still laughing.

I’m a sucker for a funny story, and Bill Bryson has provided me with a steady stream of them since I first discovered him in Granta magazine back in the ’80s. I couldn’t get enough of his wisecracking tales about growing up in Des Moines, especially the epic family road trips he endured.

His latest book, in which he more or less recreates the meanderings around and musings about Britain’s quirky corners that he mined so successfully in Notes from a Small Island four decades ago, delivered just the dose of laughs I needed to offset a particularly intense stretch at work. Humor is a first-rate antidote to any number of things, I’ve found, including stress. This is why I also own a well-worn copy of the DVD Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Mr. Mysterious & CompanyI discovered humor between the covers of a book early, when I first read Sid Fleischman’s Mr. Mysterious & Company as a child. Mr. Fleischman’s story not only had me laughing in delight, but also managed to worm its way deep into my psyche, popping out decades later when I had children of my own and inaugurated a unique Frederick twist on Fleischman’s Abracadabra Day. Read Mr. Mysterious & Company and you’ll get the idea.

A few years after discovering Fleischman, I stumbled across a P. G. Wodehouse anthology on my grandfather’s bookshelf. I was 12 or so, and enormously pleased with myself for appreciating Wodehouse’s special brand of British humor. (Of course it helped that I had just returned to the U.S. from a stretch living in England.)  His nimble style! His flawless comic timing! And oh, his characters! What budding writer could possibly resist Bertie Wooster’s substantial Aunt Dahlia, who fitted into his biggest armchair “as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing armchairs tight about the hips that season”? Or how about his formidable Aunt Agatha, whom the feckless Bertie described as wearing “barbed wire next to the skin”? And then there was that pig named the Empress of Blandings…. I was a goner.

Years later, I read somewhere that when Wodehouse’s family heard him chuckling in his study as he wrote, they knew the work was going well. I seem to recall reading the same thing about Sid Fleischman. I don’t know whether Mr. Bryson’s family hears him laughing, too, but I hope my family hears me. Not all my books are humorous, but nearly all of them have humorous moments, and when something I write strikes me as funny and I make myself laugh, I think of writers like P. G. Wodehouse and Sid Fleischman and others who have traveled this path before me, and I know I’m in good company.

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The Odious Ogre

The Odious OgreI’m a big fan of Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. I can remember reading it as a kid and thinking it both hilarious and clever. And I loved the words! So many words!

So when the Juster-Feiffer team came out with The Odious Ogre a few years back, I leapt at it. A picture book! A long picture book! My favorite kind! Full of long words and clever phrasings—it is a hoot. I’ve read it to pre-schoolers through middle-schoolers—they and their adults laugh.

The Odious Ogre lives on his reputation mostly—and it’s a ghastly reputation. He was, it was widely believed, extraordinarily large, exceedingly ugly, unusually angry, constantly hungry, and absolutely merciless.

At least that was his reputation—it’s what everyone thought or supposed or had heard or read …. As Juster says: No ogre ever had it so good. He terrorized the surrounding villages and everyone just … well, let him. They thought it was hopeless, that there was nothing they could do.

No one can resist me, says the Ogre. I am invulnerable, impregnable, insuperable, indefatigable, insurmountable …. He had an impressive vocabulary having accidently swallowed a large dictionary while eating the head librarian in one of the neighboring towns.

Now I know there are those who will read that sentence of wonderful i-words and and the detail of eating librarians and they will think one of two things (if not both): There’s a vocab list! OR, why would she read that to pre-schoolers?!

My husband just looked over my shoulder at the illustrations and said, “Wow. That looks violent.” And there are violent scenes, to be sure. (Although they’re pictures in sweet pen and inky water colors, so the impact is softened.) The best scene is when the ogre throws a temper tantrum, leaping and hurling himself around the garden of a completely unflappable young girl outside of her beflowered cottage. She’d just offered him tea. And muffins. This floors the ogre. He worries that his reputation might be in jeopardy. So he bellows and stomps and blusters. He grimaces and twitches and snorts, all while belching, clawing and drooling in an attempt to frighten the imperturbable young woman. There’s a two-page spread of his reign of terror. The children adore it. The younger they are, the more they delight in it.

gr_odious_ogre_tantrum

The girl is at first overwhelmed. Then she recovers herself, sets down her plate of muffins and applauds with great enthusiasm for a full minute.

“What fun, how magical, how wonderful!” she exclaimed. “Would you consider doing that for the orphans’ picnic next week? I know the children would love it.”

It simply doesn’t matter that the three-year-olds cannot define all of the words. They know exactly what is going on—they’ve thrown such spectacles themselves, after all! They think it hilarious that the young woman wants the ogre to do it again on purpose.

Tucked in my copy of The Odious Ogre, I have sheets that I made that fold into a wee little book. It helps the kids to write their own story about  (Name) , The Most (adjective) Ogre. It asks them to name their ogre, describe their ogre, draw the ogre-y face, describe the ogre’s voice and sounds ….

Kids love this activity! At first I thought it was the size of the book (maybe 2 inches by 3 inches). But I actually think it’s the words. They come up with such creative words after hearing such thesaurastic strings of adjectives from Juster. They name their ogres things like Christilliblly and Amdropistily. They describe their ogres with words like humungo, tizzlly, and grubbling. They use all the crayons in the box when they draw their ogre’s portrait, and they change their own little voices in the most amazing ways to let me hear how their ogre sounds.

Big words, long rambly sentences, large art spreads—this is a great book for kids of all ages. I stand by my call for the longer picture book. I wish Juster and Feiffer would do a series for my personal storytime pleasure.

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Bookstorm™: Turn Left at the Cow

 

Turn Left at the Cow

Turn Left at the CowWho doesn’t love a mystery? Whether your find them intriguing puzzles or can’t-wait-to-know-the-solution page-turners, a good mystery is engrossing and a little tense. Throw in a little humor, a detailed setting, and well-drawn characters and you have a book you can confidently hand to young readers who are already hooked on the genre and those who have yet to become fans.

We are pleased to feature Turn Left at the Cow as our May book selection, written by the expert plotter Lisa Bullard, replete with her characteristic humor.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. You’ll find books, articles, and videos for a variety of tastes and interests. This month, we’re focusing on books for middle grade readers with mysteries, humor, and bank heists. 

Downloadables

 

 

Don’t miss the exceptional resources on the author’s website. Try your hand at butter carving with “Butter Head Beauties,” engaging science, art, and language arts skills. Re-create the book’s chicken poop bingo with “Chances Are,” calling on math and language arts. Lisa Bullard’s Pinterest page has more great ideas that you’ll find useful as you incorporate this book into your planning.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Middle Grade Mysteries. There are amazing books written for this age group. We’ve included a list that would help you select read-alikes or companion books, drawing on titles first printed in 1929 (yes, really) to 2015.

Butter Heads and Other State Fair Strangeness. A butter head is one of the attention-worthy objects in the book. Begin an online research assignment with a few articles about butter heads around the country.

Fish Out of Water. Travis lives in southern California. When he runs away to his grandmother’s cabin in northern Minnesota, it walks and talks like a different world, one that Travis has to learn to navigate if he’s going to solve the mystery.

Missing Parent. Even though Travis left his mother behind with her new husband, Travis is most interested in finding out about his dad, who died before he was born. Books for this age group often revolve around a parent or parents who are not present. We’ve recommended a few of them. 

Robberies and Heists. Travis has trouble believing his father could have robbed a bank but the townspeople seem to think so. We’ve included books that delineate bank or train robberies, some of them true.

Small Town Festivals. One of the most exciting scenes in Turn Left at the Cow takes place in Green Lake, Minnesota’s annual summer festival where chicken poop bingo is a tradition. We’ve found articles about other small town festivals that would make good writing prompts, research projects, or PowerPoint projects.

Mysteries offer a special pleasure to many readers, both children and adults. They provide an excellent opportunity to talk about plot and how that plot is reinforced by intriguing characters (and good writing!).

Let us know how you are making use of this Bookstorm™. Share your ideas and any other books you’d add to this Bookstorm™.

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Beverly Cleary

Beverly Cleary, 1971

Beverly Cleary, 1971

For the last month I have been reading articles, toasts, essays, and interviews with one of my favorite authors of all time: Beverly Cleary. She turned 100 years old this week. Everything I read about her makes me misty-eyed—the birthday plans in her home state of Oregon … her memories of being in the lowest reading group, the Blackbirds, in elementary school … that she writes while baking bread … how she named her characters … that she was a “well-behaved girl” but she often thought like Ramona (me, too!!!) … the fan mail she still receives in a steady stream … SIGH.

My second grade teacher, Mrs. Perkins, read us Ramona the Brave. It was a new book that year—she used it to show us how to open a brand-new book and “break in” the binding so that the pages would turn easily. She told us that it was part of a series and I remember being out of sorts that she would start mid-series, but then I was so engrossed in the story that I dropped my grudge.

Reading Is FundamentalMy elementary school was a RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) school. RIF day was easily my favorite day of the year. I understood that RIF existed to put books in the hands of kids who would not otherwise own books. I had books at home, though many of my classmates did not, and I was always a little nervous that somehow I would be excluded—what if someone reported my little bookshelf, or the fact that I received a book every birthday? What if I was pulled aside—not allowed to go pick a book?! But it never happened. No questions asked—just encouragement to pick a book of my very own. RIF Bliss!

Ramona the PestThat second-grade-year, when my class went down to the entrance lobby of the school to visit the tables and tables piled with books (this remains my image of abundance), the very first book I saw was Ramona the Pest. I knew it had to be related to Ramona the Brave, and was proud to have the presence of mind—my heart beat hard in the excitement of my discovery!—to confirm that the author’s name, Beverly Cleary, was listed under the title. Mrs. Cleary lived in Oregon, Mrs. Perkins said. It was a place so far away from central Illinois that I was surprised one of her books could have made its way to our RIF tables. I scooped it up and carried it around with me as I perused all of the other books. We were allowed to choose only one book, but none of the others even came close to tempting me to put down Ramona the Pest.

illustration by Louis Darling

illustration by Louis Darling

I’m astounded when I look at lists of Beverly Cleary’s books and their publication dates. She started the Ramona series in 1955. My mother was nine years old! The last in the series, Ramona’s World, was written when my son was two, in 1999. And that’s just the Ramona books! What a career! At least three generations have read and loved Cleary’s books.

I still have that little trade-paperback book. It’s well worn—I read it many times as a kid. And I read it to my kids, too, of course. It’s the only Ramona book I own—through all of the cover changes and box sets, I’ve just stuck with my one little RIF book.

I might change that this week, though. I think perhaps I’ll buy myself a boxed set of Ramona and make a donation to RIF in Beverly Cleary’s honor.

Happy Birthday, Beverly Cleary!

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Feeling Cranky

Phyllis: February is the month for lovers and for love. And it’s the month where some of us also get a little grumpy. Gray slushy snow—no good for skiing or building snow people—lines the streets. The weight of winter coats wears old. And even though we do love February, we thought we’d look at books about grumpiness—just in case anyone else might feel a little, well, cranky once in a while.

Crankee DoodleCrankee Doodle by Tom Angleberger with pictures by Cece Bell, stretches the conventions of picture books with art and text in dialogue balloons depicting a conversation between a soldier and his horse. “We could go to town,” the horse cheerily proposes. Crankee Doodle’s response? A long list of reasons NOT to go. Each of the horse’s suggestions, to go shopping, buy a feather, get a new hat, is met with more negativity. “Shopping? I hate shopping … I might as well throw my money down an outhouse hole.” Crankee Doodle oversteps a line when the horse offers to carry him to town and Crankee says, “No way. You smell terrible.” Seeing how much he has hurt his horse’s feelings, Crankee capitulates, and they drive to town with Crankee yelling “Yee-HAW!” out the car window. “Nice hat,” “the horse tells Crankee in the last spread where they are happily laden with purchases. “Thanks, pal,” Crankee replies.

For a day when you or your kids feel cranky, reading this book out loud and throwing yourself into the crankiness can be cathartic. And just plain fun. 

Jackie: I love the way this story ties into the song Yankee Doodle. Crankee Doodle, the grumpy brother to the original, doesn’t want to go to town, (especially not riding a pony), doesn’t want a feather for his hat, and refuses to call his hat “macaroni” (lasagna, maybe, but definitely not macaroni). A reading of this story should always be preceded by a singing of the song.

Man Who Enjoyed GrumblingPhyllis: The Man Who Enjoyed Grumbling by Margaret Mahy, with illustrations by Wendy Hodder (published in 1987 and found on the used book rack of an Allen County public library). features scratchy Mr. Ratchett, who enjoys a good grumble. His neighbors, the Goat family, give him plenty of opportunity to grumble at them.

The Goat family liked making trouble.
They bunted and bleated.
They nibbled his hedge.
Sometimes they put their horns down
And chased the cat.

One day the Goat family, wanting more room for jumping around and tired of their scratchy neighbor, move to the high hills. Mr. Ratchett tries to find satisfaction in the peace and quiet but, without his neighbors to grumble at, things are too quiet. “Trust those Goats to go off and have a good time,” he grumbles. “They don’t spare a thought for the poor old man next door.”

Up in the hills the Goat family, too, finds things too quiet. “We like making trouble and we need a scratchy neighbor close by,” they tell Mr. Ratchett when they move back in next door. Mr. Ratchettt does a little grumbler’s tap dance where the Goats can’t see him because “he was so glad they were back.”

Jackie: This book is so much fun to read out loud:“They bunted and bleated./They nibbled his hedge.”

And it’s packed full of great words and phrases: Scratchy Mr. Ratchett (as he is always called in this book) wears “moaning boots.” And he believes “A man needs a bit of grumbling to bring a sparkle to his eyes.”

Worst Person in the WorldPhyllis: James Stevenson’s The Worst Person in the World has a yard full of poison ivy, yells at anyone who comes near his house, eats lemons for breakfast (“Ugh! Too sweet!”), and hits flowers with his umbrella. When the Worst encounters the ugliest thing in the world, who has a self-confessed “pleasing personality,” Ugly enthusiastically plans a party in the Worst’s house with decorations, cake, party hats, and invitations to the neighborhood children. The Worst tells Ugly he wants no party, no children, and no Ugly. The crestfallen Ugly leaves, but the Worst eventually finds a striped party hat in the corner and tries it on. “Hmmm,” he says, and goes off to find Ugly and the children to invite them back to a party. Stevenson doesn’t transform his character into a sunshiney person, but the Worst does have a smile on his face as he leads everyone back to his house.

Jackie: James Stevenson is so funny! Ugly recites the old saw, “if you’ve got a pleasing personality that’s all that counts,” in such a deadpan and earnest way that somehow emphasizes the clichéd quality. I almost think Stevenson invented Ugly so he could use that line.

He, like Margaret Mahy, is funny in the way he uses language. The party is not just a party. When the Worst asks what he’s doing Ugly replies, “Getting ready for the big shebang!” Shebang—much more fun than a party.

You are right, Phyllis, that the Worst continues to be grumpy right up until the end of the story, but we know it’s not quite the same level of grumpiness because he’s changed. At the beginning of the story he looks right at their ball and tells the kids he hasn’t seen it. At the end he looks at it and returns it to them.

The Worst is the grump we love to laugh at, so this seems like just the right amount of change. We don’t want him to totally reform.

Phyllis: Stevenson’s other Worst books include The Worst Person in the World at Crab Beach, The Worst Goes South, The Worst Person’s Christmas, and Worse than the Worst. In all of the books Stevenson’s scratchy illustrations capture the Worst’s crankiness in his person and his surroundings. By the end of each book, if he’s not smiling, the Worst’s frown has at least relaxed a little.

James Stevenson Worst Books

Jackie: My favorite of those I have read on this list is The Worst Goes South. Worst leaves home to avoid a fall festival next door—way too much hog-calling and polka music. He’s the first guest since 1953 in the motel he finds. The owner says, “Clean [your room] yourself. And don’t be bothering me for towels and soap and all that nonsense … don’t be whining for breakfast, … this is not some fancy spoil-you-rotten hotel.” It turns out that there are two Worsts. And the motel owner is Worst’s brother, Ervin.

Phyllis: Stevenson’s Worst books can be hard to put your hands on—within a large metropolitan library system The Worst Person in the World was only available from an outstate library. But his books, along with Crankee Doodle and The Man Who Enjoyed Grumbling, will put a smile on the crankiest face.

Jackie: The Worst books that I found came from Gallatin, Missouri, Newton, Iowa, and Waverly, Iowa. These are not books we can read on a whim, at least not now. Getting them requires advance planning. I wish some publisher would reprint these books.

Phyllis: Spring is on the way, but February has much to celebrate: love, lovers, friends, and perhaps the chance, once in a while, to enjoy being just a little cranky.

Jackie: Phyllis and I were actually a little cranky about how hard it was to find the Worst books and The Man Who Enjoyed Grumbling. I could not find it nor successfully order it. Phyllis had to read it to me over Skype. As we said, we’d love to see them reprinted. Are there books that you love that you can’t find easily, that you think should be reprinted? Let us know in the comments below. We want to start a list.

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Mrs. Noodlekugel and Four Blind Mice

Mrs. Noodlekugel and Four Blind Mice

The woman who cuts my hair, Amy, had a particularly hard summer the year her boys had just learned to read. Their school asked that she keep them reading over the summer, but there were only so many Magic Treehouse books she wanted them to read. What other books would be suitable? The minutes flew […]

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I Am Cow, Hear Me MOO!

I Am Cow, Hear Me MOO!

There has been a lot written about the bravery of cows (no, there hasn’t). Some of it has startled us with the sheer audacity of amazing feats of derring-do of which cows are capable (News at 10!). Young children everywhere are pinning up cow posters on their bedroom walls, hoping to one day be as […]

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Planet Kindergarten

Planet Kindergarten

Books about getting ready for kindergarten and the first day in that Strange New Land are plentiful, but I can’t recall one that has drawn me into the experience as fully as Planet Kindergarten does. Every aspect of this book, from word choice to story to the detailed and clever drawings, puts this book at […]

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Return of Zita the Spacegirl

The Return of Zita the Spacegirl

Ben Hatke can’t conceive of, write, and draw these stories fast enough for me—and a host of other fans. Just released, this book follows Zita the Spacegirl (2010) and Legends of Zita the Spacegirl (2012). Doing the math, I know I won’t be reading the next installment until 2016. Whahhh. I’ve read so many stories […]

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Space Taxi

Space Taxi: Archie Takes Flight Wendy Mass and Michael Brawer, illus by Elise Gravel Little, Brown Books for Young Readers What a hoot! When eight-year-old Archie Morningstar gets up early in the morning for his first Take Your Kid to Work Day, he never imagines that his taxi-driving dad in their rickety cab is actually […]

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Gifted: Up All Night

My mother had the knack of giving me a book every Christmas that kept me up all night … after I had opened it on Christmas Eve. I particularly remember the “oh-boy-it’s-dark-outside” year that I received The Lord of the Rings and accompanied the hobbits into Woody End where they first meet the Nazgul, the […]

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Books Plus: The Goods by McSweeney’s

The Goods by McSweeney’s: Games and Activities for Big Kids, Little Kids, and Medium-Size Kids edited by Mac Barnett and Brian McMullen featuring Adam Rex, Jon Scieszka, and more Big Picture Press, an imprint of Candlewick Press, 2013 For your holiday gift-giving consideration … An oversized book filled with every imaginable distraction, this should be […]

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Gifted: Arlo’s ARTrageous Adventure!

Arlo’s ARTrageous Adventures! written and illustrated by David LaRochelle Sterling Children’s Publishing, 2013 If you’re considering gifts for the holiday season … (book #1 in our series of Gifted recommendations) … No matter how uninteresting Arlo’s elderly relative insists on making their trip to the museum with her warnings to be serious and quiet and […]

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Anatomy of a Series: Topps League Books

We’re in post-season, when a lot of fans start to look wild-eyed, wondering how they’ll hang on for three months until spring training starts in February. Here in Minnesota, it’s tough for sandlot baseball or Little League games to be played in the snow with an icy baseline. Young fans can keep up the momentum […]

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Coffee, coffee, coffee

I’ve been spending a good amount of time in coffee shops lately, working. It’s ironic for me to be grabbing Wi-Fi juice in these ubiquitous icons of contemporary society—I haven’t ever tasted coffee. The whirring and smells and steam and dedicated caffeine hunters make it a challenge for me, but I’ve always been comfortable with […]

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The Nature of Humor

I’ve been pondering the many questions I have about the nature of humor as the Chapter & Verse Book Clubs prepare to discuss next week the book Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy, compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus (Candlewick Press). Wherever we go, teachers and librarians—and parents—ask for more funny and light-hearted […]

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