When The World’s Worst Readers Met The World’s Worst Children

By Marcia LeBeau

I gave birth to two reluctant readers. Not that they won’t read or don’t like
being read to, it’s just that books are a hard sell. From the beginning, my well-
loved copy of Beatrix Potter’s Apply Dapply Nursery Rhymes was of no interest
to them. Sweet storybooks, classic and contemporary, with simple narratives
and obvious morals didn’t hold their attention either. Believe me, I tried.

I could sometimes get a Shel Silverstein poem in under the radar without
much backlash and Mo Willems was more than tolerated. Most of the time,
though, my sons would slide off my lap and run to something more exciting,
like a backhoe pushing gravel from one side of our street to the other. You
might think Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site would have done the
trick, but no. This was not the cozy, glowing realm of parent-child bonding I
had imagined.

While I didn’t want to subscribe to a gender binary, I heard from children’s au-
thors that, most often, the kids who aren’t interested are the boys. The ones who
shout out from the back of the bookstore, “Reading is boring!” and bust out their
Matchbox cars. I also heard from a librarian that kids don’t know nursery rhymes
anymore. None. So, I begrudgingly put poetry on hold, but I wouldn’t give up on
storybooks. I just had to go a little further afield than expected.

It wasn’t until a trip to London a few years ago for our tenth anniversary
that my husband and I discovered a newly published book, The World’s Worst
, by David Walliams. Let me correct myself—it was my husband’s
find. When he showed me the book he planned to bring home to our kids,
then four and six, I was pessimistic. Bad children? Who hasn’t written about
horrid children? But it turned out these British children were different. These
children were seriously, hilariously, the worst. Walliams’ writing is as if Shel
Silverstein had sucked on a helium balloon and an unending stream of “blub-
bers” and “little Tommy squeakers” had come out of both ends of him. My
kids were enthralled. Although it’s not in verse, characters like Miss Petula
Perpetual-Motion who avoids pummeling precious porcelain by crawling inside
a Bouncing Boom-Boom Ball, at least checked the alliteration box. My older
son, always partial to store-bought superhero costumes, even dressed up as
Nigel Nit-Boy for Halloween. I should have known miracles would materialize
from the land of Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling.

Maybe the key for my kids would be to expand even further beyond the
proverbial pond. But sadly, there were no contemporary children’s books on
my kids’ shelves from other countries—apart from England. There were some
non-English children’s poems, including an anthology I often use when I teach
children poetry—This Same Sky: A Collection of Poems from around the
, edited by Naomi Shihab Nye. Translations of poems from every corner
of the world often grab elementary schoolers’ attention in a different way than
American poems do. Like this description of a pitcher from Paraguayan poet,
Renée Ferrer de Arréllaga:

Between your lips sings
your liquid freshness
the clear sound
of such roundness.

The vantage points are unique and the translations rich. But with over a mil-
lion children’s book titles being published each year in the United States, it’s
no wonder foreign translations get overlooked, and, with some exceptions, my
kids overlooked them, too.

They didn’t overlook The World’s Worst Children. While I do think the
British words for drooling, lice, and farts, or even less giggle-worthy Queen’s
English, like a “ticking off” instead of a “lecture” or “maths” class instead of
“math,” perked up my kid’s ears, I couldn’t figure out why Walliams’ book
mesmerized them to such an extent. It wasn’t until I discovered that Walliams
comes from an entertainment background that it started to make sense. He is
a popular British comedian, known for three BBC sketch comedy series in the
early 2000s that eventually led to his own show. Incidentally, one of the only
American books my kids wanted me to read over and over was B.J. Novak’s
The Book with No Pictures. Another comedy writer.

These are people who love to get a laugh in whatever way possible and get
paid well to do so. With their books, they just switched their target to children.
Who better than comedians to play with pathos and misery, to recognize the
value of grabbing your audience with a premise or a surprise? The best kids’
books are like a tight, five-minute set after all, a direct strike at the funny bone.
They also know how to take a dig at the humorless, the way one of Walliam’s
beastly characters, twelve-year-old Earnest Ernest, wrinkles his nose with scorn
when his jolly mother suggests they go to the circus.

Both Walliams and Novak know that kids don’t need to be talked down to.
“A good comic has the philosophy: Funny is funny, and never blame the au-
dience,” Novak has said. “I’ve never seen crowds react so universally to any-
thing as when they’re 5, 6, 7 years old. Whatever age kids become different,
it’s later than this age.” Novak explains how he wrote the story because he
realized that when a child hands you a book, she’s handing you a script of
unlimited potential and expecting it to deliver. So he went about punching up
a story he had written for his friend’s child. That’s how he came up with his
bestselling children’s book about heads made of “blueberry pizza” and words
like “BLORK,” “GA-Wocko,” and Glibbity-Globbity.” This is, alas, my kids’
version of “Jabberwocky.” Not surprisingly, at Novak’s readings, the kids aren’t
playing with Matchbox cars, they’re laughing, fully engaged, the way we are
when we read a good poem. Perhaps we are not chuckling while inside a good
stanza, but we are waiting attentively for that moment when we feel the sat-
isfaction that our time has not been wasted; we have learned something. I’ve
described it as the “We love you, Bruuuuuuuce! from the nosebleed seats”
moment in a poem, when the writer sparks that connection within us and
we burst.

Many children’s authors know how to make that connection because they
started their writing careers in a different genre or wrote for an adult audi-
ence. That gives them a particularly sharp style. It was a comedian whose book
hooked my kids, which makes sense: sketch comedy and children’s books are
short-form genres, as are poetry and cartoons.

That said, kids don’t necessarily need everything to be fast and ridiculous.
Donald Hall’s pastoral children’s book, beautifully illustrated by Barbara Cooney,
The Ox-Cart Man, originally a poem for adults, won a Caldecott. The book
harkens back to simpler times and draws children in with its story of our coun-
try’s agricultural heritage in lyrical prose. Children know instinctually that a quiet
story, if told with forward momentum, is galloping toward a reward.

Obviously not all children’s book authors have performance or high literary
backgrounds. Some hail from genres as mundane as technical writing. Andrea
Beaty, author of the bestselling Questioneers series, started her career this way.
According to her, it helped her to be a fierce editor of her children’s books. And
before being convinced to write for children, Shel Silverstein wrote and illus-
trated poems for Playboy. If there was ever an incentive to draw attention away
from competing content! You can imagine a subscriber arguing, “I just read it
for the poems.”

Considering these writers, I think back on my own trajectory: before poetry,
I was an advertising copywriter. The first rule in that line of work is to grab the
reader quick. If the hook doesn’t draw the audience in, they’ll be gone. While
many of us enjoy digging into a complicated poem, we’ve all seen people sit in
the back of a poetry reading planning their quick escape, and the threshold is
even shorter for kids before the Matchbox cars or a plea to use the bathroom.
Their attention span can remind us grown-up writers not to dilly-dally too
much. Michael Rosen puts it well when he writes, “[Adults] will read and re-
read poems because they enjoy the effort of untangling them. I think there is a
tiny minority of children like that, but in general poems for children have got to
sound interesting enough on a first reading to draw them in.” Exactly. And not
just poems for children.

When I was a kid, it didn’t occur to me that the authors of the books I read
did anything but write children’s books. Nor did I care. The book either in-
terested me or it didn’t. Children want to be entertained and they gravitate to
whatever or whoever does that for them. Sometimes it takes a while to find. But
often they discover it in writers who haven’t forgotten how to entertain with
playful language, or those who can tell an arresting story even if it’s a quiet one.
This year, I’ve practiced a little coercion with my own “world’s worst chil-
dren,” since we’ve been spending so much time together during the pandemic.
I read to them at bedtime again, even though they are technically tweens. Right
now, we’re reading The Losers Club by Andrew Clements. It’s a chapter book
about a 6th grade boy named Alec who is so obsessed with reading adventure
books during class that his principal threatens to send him to summer school
if he doesn’t start paying attention. The book is a love letter to reading, and as
I read it, I still hope for a little Alec to materialize in my boys. And I pray that
someday, somehow a rhyme might quicken their pulses.

Marcia LeBeau’s poems have appeared in Rattle, Painted Bride Quarterly, Moon City Review, and SLANT. Her chapbook, Secret Hallelujah Amen, was a finalist for the 2019 Wallace Award and the 2021 Sundress Chapbook Award. LeBeau, who holds an MFA from VCFA, is a teaching artist for NJPAC and plays viola in her local symphony. She is the founder of The Writer Space, a co-working space for creative writers, in the Valley Arts District of Orange, NJ.

Originally published in NOR 29.

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