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Comedian Stephen Colbert arrives at the Time 100 Gala in New York, April 24, 2012. (Reuters)
Comedian Stephen Colbert arrives at the Time 100 Gala in New York, April 24, 2012. (Reuters)

Leah McLaren

I am an opportunistic kids'-lit satirist (and so can't you!) Add to ...

Author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, who died earlier this week, contributed many great things to the world of children’s literature. But the one he prevented is perhaps his greatest achievement: He stopped Kelly Ripa from writing a children’s book.

Ripa let this information drop during an interview earlier this week with Stephen Colbert. Unlike Her Perkiness, though, Colbert was not put off by Sendak’s outspoken disapproval of celebrity-authored children’s lit. So much so that he decided to make his own contribution to this burgeoning market – albeit a highly unusual one.

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Colbert’s new book, I Am a Pole (And So Can You!), tells the story of a melancholic metal rod in search of meaningful work. The Pole (an object, not to be confused with the ethnic group) tries out a few occupations, including an uncomfortable stint as a stripper’s prop, but in the end finds his raison d’être involves holding up a large, flapping American flag. Cue booming patriotic anthem accompanied by crazy bug-eyed Colbert author-photo grin. The end.

Will children actually like this book? It’s a good question, but one that entirely misses the point. Admittedly the point of I Am a Pole – assuming there is one – is not entirely clear, but since we’re on the subject, it is worth telling the strange and roundabout tale of how Colbert’s contribution to juvenile literature came to be.

This past February, Colbert spoke to Sendak in his Connecticut home during an interview that became an instant viral-video sensation. The irascible artist was ostensibly promoting his latest book, Bumble-Ardy, about a party-mad piglet, but instead the conversation touched on the philosophical (“I didn't set out to make children happy,” Sendak growled, “or make life better for them. Or easier for them. … I like them as few and far between as I do adults. Maybe a bit more because I really don't like adults.”) And the political (“Newt Gingrich is an idiot of great renown. … There is something so hopelessly gross and vile about him that it’s hard to take him seriously. So let's not take him seriously.”)

And the downright cranky – his critical assessment of the bestseller If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is definitive but brief: “Eh.”

It’s a bizarre exchange, but one that works because of the comic tension that bubbles up between Sendak’s troll-under-the-bridge grumpiness and Colbert’s emphatic mania. It’s funny in the way that watching someone who really doesn’t give a crap talk to someone evangelically obsessed with being right is funny, which is to say cringe-inducingly so. When the latter decides to pitch his idea for a children’s book, declaring he “wants in!” on the celebrity children’s-book trend, Sendak is gruffly bemused.

First, he tells Colbert that, as an idiot, he’s half-way there. Then, after further consideration, he concedes the pole idea’s not so bad – for a cynical celebrity-driven piece of garbage designed to do nothing but make pots and pots of money. “The sad thing is,” he shrugs, “I like it.”

Two months later, the mighty Sendak is dead and Colbert’s joke is a real live book available for 12 bucks on Amazon, as well in audio CD form, narrated by Tom Hanks. As stunts go, it’s a pretty bold one, proving as it does that … Well, what does it prove exactly? That, in the current publishing climate, a guy like Stephen Colbert can basically wipe his bum and be guaranteed a book deal? But surely we already knew that.

I suppose it’s possible that Colbert was simply after the money, though presumably he’s got enough revenue streams on the go at the moment without having to bother schlepping about town promoting a half-baked kiddie story.

If you ask me, the point of I Am a Pole (And So Can You!) is to be an exercise is pure comic absurdity, i.e. there isn’t a point. Its existence is about as meaningful as Tracey Emin encasing her bloodied tampons in glass and selling them to the superrich. In other words, the joke’s on us for buying it, and buy it we will, because it is funny right?

The sheer ludicrousness of a joke pitch for a patriotic fable authored by a right-wing nut job comic persona and grudgingly endorsed by one of the great literary imaginations of our time becoming an actual book – and released in the same week that that imagination expired – is just too beautifully bizarre to resist. In the face of such cosmic weirdness, what can we do but laugh?

Not everyone agrees with me, of course. On The Daily Beast this week, another children’s book satirist, Adam Mansbach, author of the bestselling Go the F*ck to Sleep, eviscerates Colbert’s contribution to juvenile lit with the help of his two young nephews, Henry and Victor. He begins his piece by introducing himself as “this nation’s foremost expert on fake children’s literature,” and concludes by asking the boys if they recognize Colbert from his author’s photo. Their best guess: He’s vice-president? Finally Mansbach floats the dominant theory behind the rise of much of children’s-lit satire: This book is actually for grownups. “No way,” the boys conclude. “Definitely not. It’s too stupid even for us.”

Well if it’s stupid enough for the late great Sendak, it’s stupid enough for me: The sad thing is I likeit, too.

Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

 
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