28 September 2010

Subversive Favorites: It's a Book by Lane Smith

This post was originally prompted by an on-line discussion I've been following--and contributed to--about whether or not this picture book should be shelved as a picture book, fiction or in the children's room at all. You might have heard about It's a Book on NPR,  or read a review of it (there are many, and they are favorable.) You might have even read it yourself (please do!) What prompted the discussion was the use of a single word--and here I am going to give away the punchline of the book, so if you don't want the wicked wit revealed.....SPOILER!

The conversation was prompted by Lane Smith's use of the word, "jackass." He uses the word twice: at the very beginning, when he is introducing the characters in the book, one of which is, indeed, a jackass. He uses it again, with much more dramatic effect at the very end, when Jackass is addressed by name. However, by the end of the book the reader has realized that Jackass is not just a donkey, but a fool as well, hence the comedic brilliance of that utterance.

So first and foremost, thank you Lane Smith for reclaiming the word for legitimate use in children's literature! After all, 'jackass' is not an intrinsically bad word, one which has simply been commandeered for nefarious purposes (can anyone say, 'bitch'?) Actually, to be more accurate, I think it suffers from its association with a certain part of the human body (can anyone say, 'Uranus'?) But I digress. Children may snicker at the word. Or, perhaps if we give them a little credit, they might actually get the point. Adults reading this book certainly should. And if, after tucking their kids into bed for the night, they pick up their Kindles and iPads with a twinge of guilt, well....that's not such a bad thing. Books work precisely because the technology is simple. The only interface necessary involves picking it up and giving in to its pull. Talk about subversive!

To be honest, the books of Lane Smith beg the question--is sarcasm wasted on young readers? Perhaps 'sarcasm' is the wrong word for what I am trying to describe, which is closer to sophisticated, sly, sharp humor. If you revisit The Happy Hocky Family Moves to the Country (a personal favorite) or Glasses, Who Needs 'em? or even the much lauded John, Paul, George and Ben, there is a bite to these stories which rises above situational humor or visual jokes. Do young readers, 'get it'? Of course, as with any book, it depends on the reader. But in my opinion, why not test a child's wit? I've witnessed my own daughter, who at nine still laughs at burps, fling a zinger out every now and then. It's like she's using humor to test deeper intellectual waters. And in the end, isn't that what all great books do--challenge us intellectually?

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