Sunday, April 11, 2021

I Guess You Had to Be There

There's no word I trust less on a book jacket than "hilarious." Maybe humor is too idiosyncratic, or maybe it's the nature of blurbs to be a bit hyperbolic. Either way, what reviewers really seem to mean by it is "wry" or "ironic," or sometimes just "good at constructing paragraphs to resemble a joke." What they don't seem to mean very often is "funny."

It's all well and good for me to complain about this, since I'm not the one writing reviews. But I was on the other end of it this week when I got a text from my niece asking me to recommend a book that would make her laugh. 

Recommending books to a nine-year-old is fraught to being with. She's a voracious reader who makes no distinction between genres, but that makes it hard to know where to begin, and the obvious choices are usually books she's already read. The last time we talked she was just finishing up the Sherlock Holmes stories, had started a new series about dragons, was researching Greek mythology, and advised me to read Ramona Quimby.

So I've come to accept, as my personal rule of thumb, a 1-in-3 success ratio. When I give her books for her birthday, or make recommendations, I make sure to include at least three different titles. If even one of them lands, to me that's a win.

For instance: After finishing the Harry Potter books, my niece was on the hunt for a new series to read. So for her birthday I sent her John Bellairs' "The House with a Clock in Its Walls," Brian Jacques' "Redwall," and Diana Wynn Jones' "Howl's Moving Castle." Of the three, Bellairs got a lukewarm review, Jacques got nothing at all, and "Howl's Moving Castle" was declared the best book she'd ever read. (This lasted about a month, until she discovered Tui T. Sutherland, at which point it is fair to say that dragons became the central focus of her life.)

I took her reaction to Jones as a major success, and to hell with the other two. So when she asked me for funny books, I came up with three places to start and hoped at least one would connect.

Paperback cover of Paula Danziger's "This Place Has No Atmosphere," featuring an irritated looking young woman sitting on a moon colony with Earth in the background

First I recommended Paula Danziger, whose books are still some of my most vividly remembered from childhood. (She also introduced me to the term "silent but deadly," so for that alone I feel a certain debt, which I can only pay forward.)

Next I offered up Daniel Pinkwater, who really should have won the Pulitzer for "The Hoboken Chicken Emergency." Excellent title, and just listen to the description from Pinkwater's website: Arthur goes to pick up the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner but comes back with a 260-pound chicken. How can anyone resist a premise like that?

Finally, I suggested Jeff Smith's Bone, for its heart and its humor and for being such a smart and singular work. The only drawback to this one is that comics read fast, and even one as long as Bone may not take her too long. Fortunately this is offset by the fact that it gets better with every subsequent read.

And yes, it's fair to say that this list suffers from the fact I haven't been nine years old in quite some time. I'd like to think these recommendations are classics, but we all want to believe that about the things we grew up with. If she enjoys any of the above, I'll call it a win. If she doesn't, then I'll ask my niece to recommend something hilarious to me, and we'll see how she likes being the one in the hot seat.

People Watching

On Wednesday, I went out to meet up with a friend and do some writing. We met at the Athenaeum, a historic building in Indianapolis designed...