21 January 2011

Subversive Favorites: The Worst Person in the World at Crab Beach by James Stevenson

While it is generally understood that bad behavior in children is not tolerable, bad behavior in the elderly seems to be more acceptable. I am generalizing, of course, but allowances are made for age, and the older you are, the more people let you get away with being a curmudgeon. This is certainly the case with The Worst, the eponymous anti-hero of the "Worst Person in the World" series. He is a cantankerous codger who is surrounded by kindly, patient neighbors who humor his foul moods while they wait for him to come round to their way of thinking.

The Worst is not only bad tempered and unreasonable, but he is at his happiest when a situation is at its worst. If he's not making life miserable for someone else, he's more then willing to make life unpleasant for himself. When he goes on vacation in The Worst Person in the World at Crab Beach, he chooses a hotel based on how many mosquitoes they have (in this case, many,) how awful the food is, and, when given the choice of room, he chooses a room in the cellar with a hard bed and "no view whatsoever."  However, The Worst meets his match in caustic Miriam and her odious son, Cranston. And that's what makes this, for me, the best of The Worst.

Miriam is considerably younger than The Worst, so there is no justifying her surliness. Described as "shrill and screechy," she is liberal with her use of insults and would be a nightmare to meet in person. And yet, she has her softer side. In an unparalleled display of maternal love, she flings The Worst's lunch into the ocean when he kicks over her son's sand castle. '"Lunch is over," she said. "Why don't you shove off?"' When The Worst declares that he is leaving, Cranston, not to be out done by his mother, quips, '"Not fast enough."' You just can't get dialog like that in a children's book anymore! At least, not without a moral.

So why do I recommend this book about grown-ups behaving badly? Well, it's funny. And other than enjoying The Worst and Miriam fling Three Stooges-style zingers at each other, I am always in favor of books that show that grumpiness is an option. I don't believe that a book has to be an edifying experience every time a child picks one up; it's okay for them to laugh at foibles for the sake of them. But since an entire book can not be sustained by one joke, author/illustrator Stevenson slips in an almost unrecognizable dose of warm-fuzzy into his Worst books. In this case The Worst, Miriam, and Cranston clearly recognize kindred spirits and become friends. For them, friendship means sitting around drinking prune juice, watching poison-ivy grow, and chasing away would be visitors. It works for them (and Klingons, but that's a tangent we don't need to visit right now.)

An argument could be made that The Worst is simply lonely, and his behavior is a way to shield that. Like someone who practices false modesty to fish for a compliment, The Worst always manages to surround himself with people, despite the "Go Away" signs in his yard. I'm not totally convinced; I simply think The Worst is crusty, difficult and unrepentant. By crossing paths with Miriam and Cranston, The Worst is actually challenged by behavior as bad as his own. Fortunately, for all of us, it only makes him.....worse.


Clara Gillow Clark said...

I just found this link on Twitter! I love The Worst Person, but I didn't know that "he" was a series. Guess I need to sally forth to the library and request all of them!

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Hi Clara,

There are about 4 or 5 Worst Person books--even a Christmas one!(ok-I've just checked Wikipedia, which lists 5 titles, including the very promising sounding "Worse Than the Worst.") Sadly, the library is probably the only place you can find them now, because they are all out of print. The copies we have at work should have been weeded out long ago, but I am trying to make them last as long as possible, because they are irreplaceable.

Thanks for stopping by!

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