Donald was a juice box with an incredibly hostile attitude,” begins Douglas Coupland’s new book, Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People. A book titled thus must surely be for young people, right? The word “inappropriate” a tease, an invitation? The illustrations on the cover also seem kid-friendly.
But think twice before giving it to your nine-year-old.
These contemporary fairy tales are grim, populated with troubling figures: Brandon, the action figure with issues, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder following his tour of duty; a hard-drinking minivan named Kevin who abducts children (temporarily) for their pocket change; and “the guys in shop class who smoked out behind the asbestos storage bins.”
So who is this illustrated book, with its very adult references, for?
“Nobody,” Coupland says, laughing, during an interview at a West Vancouver café, pointing out that the main impetus for the project was his desire to work with illustrator Graham Roumieu (best known for his Bigfoot memoirs).
“It’s like a children’s book that you’d never let a child read. We just wanted to do something really dark and nihilistic, really, with no social redeeming value.”
Coupland, 49, grew up on inappropriate literature himself, raiding his parents’ bookshelves and coming away with paperbacks by the likes of Mario Puzo, Leon Uris and Alvin Toffler. He remembers the lure of the forbidden fondly, and hopes to replicate that to some extent with Highly Inappropriate Tales.
“The ideal life cycle for the book would be: Someone gets it as part of a baby shower or something like that ... and then it gets hidden in the cupboard. And the child turns nine and finds it [and says]ooh, what’s this? And reads it and is hopefully traumatized in some way.”
Coupland’s new offering is not the only adult humour book dressed as kidlit hitting store shelves in this all-important pre-Christmas period. I Am Better Than Your Kids, by Internet sensation Maddox, is a thick, glossy swipe at the artwork decorating suburban refrigerators everywhere. As he has done online for almost a decade now, Maddox takes real drawings by kids, and adds F grades, along with snarky, often profane comments.
Example: Seven-year-old Billy’s drawing of a happy superhero, under stars and a smiling moon, is captioned by Billy: “My hero is buttman.”
To this, Maddox adds: “Is “Buttman” anything like Batman? Idiot.”
Maddox, 33, claims to be on a crusade to save over-praised aspiring artists from themselves and their too-encouraging parents. But is this book – whose jacket proclaims “adults and children alike would do well to read this book over and over again” really for kids?
“Gee, I don’t know,” says Maddox from a New York hotel room (he lives in Los Angeles). “I mean there’s [profane]language in there. Some adults, some parents would think that’s inappropriate for kids. I personally don’t think that language is a problem; I think that ideas are much more powerful than words and I don’t have a problem with kids reading naughty words, because they’re going to read it anyway, someplace else. I’d rather it be coming from someplace of good intentions.”
There’s no ambiguity about the intended audience for Adam Mansbach’s bestseller, which looks in every way like a children’s book, but the presence of the f-word in the title makes it clear that it’s not. Go the F--- to Sleep, a nursery-rhyme-inspired, profanity-laced illustrated book told from the point of view of an exhausted parent, was written by Mansbach after yet another frustrating night trying to get his daughter to bed.
“I really wasn’t thinking about audience,” says Mansbach, 35, from his Berkeley, Calif., home. “It really was for me. It was for my own amusement, my partner’s amusement.”
It famously became a hit long before it was released. Enthusiastic tweets followed a public reading, a PDF was leaked, and the book powered up the Amazon bestseller list months before its scheduled release date. Its publication was rushed to coincide with Father’s Day. Since then, it has sold more than 400,000 copies in the United States and Canada with about half a million in print through seven printings, and the book has been licensed to more than 30 markets around the world.
Wal-Mart wouldn’t stock the book, but most of the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We get the odd letter from someone who thinks we’ve contributed to the collapse of civilization, but those are few and far between,” says Ibrahim Ahmad, senior editor with Akashic, a tiny Brooklyn-based publishing house of four full-time employees, which will post its first-ever profitable year thanks to Mansbach’s “obscene fake children’s book,” as the author puts it. Film rights have been sold, Mansbach has a “parent-related” sitcom in the works, and now a G-rated version is on the way.
Seriously, Just Go to Sleep will be published next spring, and will be “100-per-cent child-friendly,” according to Ahmad.
“A lot of parents have told us that they’ve read the book to their kids and censored it as they go,” says Mansbach. “This way [the sequel]sort of keeps the verses intact and allows people to do that without having to improvise as they go and mess up the poetry.”
A rash of other, unsolicited sequel suggestions – such as Eat Your F---ing Vegetables and Get the F--- Out of Bed – have been rejected as trite and obvious, says Ahmad.
While the success of this book may have been fuelled by the large numbers of very tired parents, there is clearly an appetite for what you might call children’s books for adults.
“People enjoy reading books that have political, weird or subversive content – and if they take on the form of a children’s picture book, they get the humour or the message easily,” says Vancouver bookseller Phyllis Simons, who carries both Mansbach’s and Coupland’s titles at her Kidsbooks stores, albeit in the adult section.
“Adults find the concept amusing – especially those who have had a relationship to the book it is parodying,” she adds.
Maddox says these works (he brings up South Park too) are forms of legitimate cultural expression created by people like him who were raised on cartoons and video games.
“Stuff like I’ve written and ... Go the F--- to Sleep are kind of satires on children’s artwork and children’s literature where it’s always this pristine world that kids live in and everything’s happy and everything’s kind and polite,” says Maddox. “It’s fun to write in that style and kind of satirize the genre for adults. Because adults don’t get to read very fun books.”
Whether you agree with that statement or not, it’s clear Coupland got to write one. His delight is palpable during a discussion about Highly Inappropriate Tales.
“I just love the fact there’s not one single moral to be gained from this entire book,” he says, laughing. Then, however, he rethinks the statement, pointing to a passage from the story Kevin, the Hobo Minivan with Extremely Low Morals.
“I too learned long ago that it’s really a lot easier in life if you have small, manageable dreams,” declares Tony, the Liquor Locker clerk. “Big dreams are for losers.”
Maddox will read at Chapters at John and Richmond in Toronto on Monday at 7 p.m. Adam Mansbach will be at Chapters at Granville and Broadway in Vancouver on Saturday, Nov. 12, at 2 p.m.