A boy is sent to a doctor to learn to stop picking his nose. A hot teen movie star gets transformed into a gerbil. A boy tickles his girlfriend until she explodes. A pirate captain becomes violently seasick. These are just some of the scenarios in Barry Yourgrau's NASTYbook, a collection of gruesome and grotesque stories intended to disgust and delight young readers.
My first mistake in reading NASTYbook was to be fooled by the cover, which is put on backwards, so readers looks like they are reading the book upside down. My second mistake was thinking that it wouldn't actually be as nasty as the title suggests. Do not underestimate the nastiness of this book. Along with normal gross-out nose-picking and bodily fluids, NASTYbook contains all sorts of bad behavior, including decapitations, animal rampages, and revenge from beyond the grave.
The stories in NASTYbook are short, usually just a few pages long, and extremely effective. One type is a fable with the ironic punch of Kafka, like "Peanut Shells," about an elephant who's caught cheating on a test with notes it cannot in fact read, or "Ugly," a story about a boy with bad skin who becomes the monster he feels himself to be. Other stories have the tone of Hilaire Belloc's CAUTIONARY TALES FOR CHILDREN, about juveniles whose bad behavior is rewarded with bad ends. Still others are just plain grotesque, or unnervingly scary, like "Oof Oof" about the ghost of a teddy bear who comes back to haunt its tormentors. The collection is visceral and disturbing, and exactly the sort of thing many kids would enjoy reading, even as many parents would find it inappropriate or upsetting.
Yourgrau's work, whether for children or adults, is at its best when he writes lean stories ripped with vivid imagery. His work is like a window into other people's nightmares. Even though they are clearly prose, there is something poetic about even the nastiest stories in NASTYbook. Yourgrau's work reminds me of Shel Silverstein's. It has the same awareness that childhood isn't just sweetness and innocence, but also can be filled with fear, superstition and brutality.
NASTYbook is fun to read and truly distressing, a book that will convince many young people that reading is more exciting than they previously thought. It does not seek any kind of moral or artistic redemption, but may find it anyway. NASTYbook is likely to be on the banned books list for many years to come.
Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on May 1, 2005
- Publication Date: May 1, 2005
- Genres: Anthology
- Hardcover: 192 pages
- Publisher: HarperCollins
- ISBN-10: 0060579781
- ISBN-13: 9780060579784