Roll out the snot, the filth and the fart jokes. If there’s one thing kids love almost as much as being terrified, it’s being grossed out.
Why is that?
Part of the reason, I think, is that children have a much better relationship with things like mud, worms and creepy crawlies than grown-ups do. When you’re a child, these things are exotic, they’re fascinating. Does anyone remember the thrill of finding a rock embedded in the ground, and the delightful anticipation of lifting it up to see what’s going to scuttle out? It’s only as we grow older that we develop a taste for clean clothes and hygiene, and fall out of love with the squirmy and slimy.
I think too that kids enjoy grown ups’ horror of these things. What’s more fun that chasing your aunt around with a fistful of earth-worms? I know one publisher who never warmed to the fashion for gross-out children’s literature and has a strict no-snot policy.
Roald Dahl was perhaps one of the first writers to figure just how much fun there was in this kind of thing. He always ensured that there was an unhealthy dollop of gross in all of his books.
In Fantastic Mr. Fox, the three villains, Farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean, are not exactly an advertisement for the agricultural sector. Bean is the smart one, but it’s Bunce you really need to avoid. He survives on donuts and goose-livers, and eats them in a very singular way. The livers are mashed into a paste and then stuffed into the donuts. Yum.
Farmer Bean never took a bath. ‘He never even washed. As a result, his earholes were clogged with all kinds of muck and wax and bits of chewing gum and dead flies and stuff like that.’
But disgust probably reached its apotheosis in the venerable Mr. and Mrs. Twit. These days, you get very few books where the protagonist is not of an age with the reader of the book, but Roald Dahl always did what he liked when it came to spinning a tale. He also disliked beards intensely, which is part of the inspiration behind the story.
Mr. and Mrs. Twit embark on an arms-race of disgust, each one trying to outdo the other in the gross-out stakes.
In response to Mr. Twit putting a frog in her bed, Mrs. Twit resolves to feed her husband worms:
“At one o’clock she cooked spaghetti for lunch and mixed the worms in with the spaghetti, but only on her husband’s plate. The worms didn’t show because everything was covered in tomato sauce and sprinkled with cheese.
‘Hey, my spaghetti’s moving!’ cried Mr. Twit, poking it around with his fork.
‘It’s a new kind!’ Mrs. Twit said.”
Only when he’s eaten it all up does she reveal what she did, since there’s no value in feeding worms to your enemy if he doesn’t know he’s eaten worms. Right?
Andy Stanton’s wonderful Mr. Gum is a kind of spiritual successor to Mr. Twit, with a Twit-esque beard and a collection of habits which render him easily as dislikeable as Twit. We’re introduced to the eponymous anti-hero and his house in You’re a bad man, Mr. Gum.
‘The rooms were filled with junk and pizza boxes. Empty milk bottles lay like soldiers in a war against milk and there were old newspapers from years and years ago with headlines like VIKINGS INVADE BRITAIN and WORLD’S FIRST NEWSPAPER INVENTED TODAY. Insects lived in the kitchen cupboards, not just small insects but great big ones with faces and names and jobs…The wardrobe contained so much mould and cheese that there was hardly any room for his moth-eaten clothes..’
Stanton blends fun and disgust wonderfully, and with genuine originality too. These books are as wild and free as any you’ll read. My kids loved them, and will still shout ‘The truth is a lemon meringue!’ the catchphrase of another Mr. Gum character, Friday O’Leary.
Disgust is particularly potent when it’s mixed with terror, something which David Walliams manages really well in Demon Dentist. In the town to which the eponymous villain has come to live, the children – like children everywhere – put their fallen teeth under their pillows at night.
‘In the morning, they would wake to find something unspeakable under there. A dead slug. A live spider. Hundreds and hundreds of earwigs creeping and crawling under their pillow. Or worse. Much worse.’
Fear and disgust are also effectively combined in the Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. In the first book, we are introduced not alone to the horrible Count Olaf, but also to his disgusting house: ‘Even by the dim light of the one bare lightbulb that hung from the ceiling, the three children could see that everything in this room was filthy, from the stuffed head of a lion which was nailed to the wall to the bowl of apples cores which sat on a small wooden table.’
As the demonic Olaf chases them through all thirteen books in the series, the children are frequently confronted by the loathsome as well as the terrifying.
Never underestimate the value in making your reader wince.