STAR-BULLETIN / SEPTEMBER 2007
Star-Bulletin columnist Charles Memminger has "Chip & Cookie" read to him by Wally Amos in Amos' cookie store in Kailua.
Who’s afraid of a big bad book?
Getting to the bottom of scary kids books is painful -- for Wally
If you are going to write something profound and moving about books for kids, you have to seek out the biggest kid of them all. Which sort of explains why I found myself sitting in the lap of Wally Amos while he read parts of his "Chip & Cookie" book to me at his cookie store in Kailua. It's not every day that Wally that lets a columnist the size of the USS Missouri sit in his lap, and I doubt he ever will again. I hear he's almost ambulatory again.
I actually wasn't planning to write anything profound and moving about kids' books, just how weird and scary they seem to have gotten these days. But I still needed to check in with Wally because, aside from being a nationally celebrated inspirational speaker, author and cookie magnate, he still takes time to visit Hawaii schools and read to children. He and his wife even launched the Chip & Cookie Read Out Loud Foundation.
How does a professional kids' book reader pick out books to read to kids?
"I look for books that have a positive message ... that are fun. And short," he says. "'Green Eggs and Ham' is a great book. Teaches children you have to try things."
Aren't kids scared of some books?
"Scared of what?" he laughs. "On TV they see body parts flying all over the place. They've seen everything. What's there to be scared of? A book? Get out of here!"
His mouth is smiling, but his eyes are saying, "Now get the heck off my lap."
CHARLES MEMMINGER /
Illustrations taken from the children's book "Bye-bye, Big Bad Bullybug!" by Ed Emberley. The book teaches children how to deal with bullies. How? By squashing them.
Creeping through kids books
My daughter spent summer home from college working in a Kailua preschool. On her last day she wanted to donate a couple of kids' books to the school, so I went with her to Borders to pick them out. I hadn't been in the children's section of a book store since my daughter was knee-high to an Oompa Loompa. So I was surprised not only at the number of kids books in publication (approximately 1.3 million in this one store alone), but also how inadvertently weird and scary a lot of the books have become.
Now, we grew up on scary tales from the Brothers Grimm, like the one about the lady who marries a man who turns out to be a murderer and cannibal and plans to eat her. But those were scary on purpose. And even as kids we knew that hardly anybody in the neighborhood actually wanted to kill and eat us.
But a lot of the books I saw are supposed to be funny and uplifting but are freaky and horrifying. Like "Bad Kitty," which starts off, "She used to be a good kitty until one day ..." It turns out her owners started feeding her broccoli and parsnips and all kind of vegetables, and, "That's when she decided she would be a BAD kitty. But not just any bad kitty -- a very, very bad, BAD kitty." Apparently the kitty started robbing gas stations and beating up puppies and stuff. What kid is going to eat vegetables after that book? I suspect the book actually was a thinly veiled biography of Britney Spears.
Even Dr. Seuss can be frightening to some sensitive readers. Charley Memminger, left, and Wally Amos take a look at Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hatches the Egg."
CHARLES MEMMINGER / CMEMMINGER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Triceratops, from "Ten Little Dinosaurs" by Pattie Schnetzler, enjoys a drink at the beach. Kids' eyes may pop out when reading "Ten Little Dinosaurs," which has rotating eyes on every page.
And "Bad Kitty" wasn't even the scariest book. There's an updated Gingerbread Man story called "Gingerbread Baby," with a half-cooked cookie baby that escapes and terrorizes the neighborhood, riding a cat, tying girls' pigtails together and spray-painting gang signs on the side of a Handi-Van. (I'm not sure about the last part. But this was a really evil cookie baby.)
For sheer weirdness, though, you can't beat a little book I found titled "Aliens Love Underpants." The story is told in poems, like, "Aliens love underpants of every shape and size; But there are no underpants in space so here's a big surprise! When aliens fly down to earth, they don't come to meet you; They simply want your underpants, I'll bet you never knew!"
What? Aliens want to steal your underpants? That's a great book to tuck your little darlings in bed to. But the story gets worse:
"They wear their undies on their feet and heads, and other silly places; they fly undies from their spaceships and hold funny races!" (Sounds kinda like a San Francisco May Day parade.)
And here's the clincher: "So when you put your underpants on, freshly washed and nice and clean; Just check in case an alien still lurks inside unseen!"
I'm sorry. But that's just wrong. It's like something written by Mr. Rogers' evil twin brother doing a stretch in Attica for pedophilia.
After scanning a number of strange and scary children's books, I decided to seek the counsel of a professional kid-book expert, Wally Amos.
Aside from being the king of cookies, Wally also takes time to visit island schools and read to kids. I found him at his Chip and Cookie store in Kailua, where he had just returned from speaking at a national Meals on Wheels convention in Texas. I've known Wally for a while and learned that visiting him is sort of like visiting a hurricane. When I got to the store, he was clowning around on the sidewalk with a crowd of people while radio personality Tiny Tadani shot the whole thing for his TV show.
Wally was wearing his trademark "watermelon" stovepipe hat and ear-to-ear smile. That man is so happy, he makes my face hurt. You don't ever get Wally alone, but between him greeting customers in his store and reading to a couple of kids who came with their dads to buy cookies, I asked him how he picks books for kids these days that aren't scary.
He looks for positive messages and a fun outlook, he said. "If you share books with children that have strong values and positive ideas again and again, they will incorporate those ideas into their lives and grow up to be good human beings."
You have to be careful what books you choose, he said. And when something weird happens in a book, you talk to them about it. But considering what kids see on TV today, books are pretty tame. "What's there to be scared of? A book? Get out of here!"
At one bookstore I met Kristi Bischoff, wife of a U.S Marine just back from Iraq, who said picking out nonscary books for kids is hard. She should know, she's got three kids, ages 5, 4 and 2.
She once read her 4-year-old a Cinderella book in which all of the characters were penguins. When she read the part about the Cinderella penguin getting thrown down into a basement and having a door slammed on her flipper, the youngster freaked out.
"I thought it would be funny," she said, "but he was in tears about it. I have to be careful about what books they get." She says this while taking a Halloween book away from the 5-year-old. "See, he wants this, but I know it will scare him."
I look through the shelves some more and come across a book called "Diary of a Fly." Great. There's a picture on the first page with the caption "Me as a baby." It's a smiling maggot. The fly writes in his diary his fears about going to school. "June 7: What if I'm the only one who eats regurgitated food?" Then on June 8: "Great news! Everyone eats regurgitated food!" Next to "Diary of a Fly" is the apparent sequel: "Diary of a Worm." Trust me, you don't want to know.
Next to the flies, worms, bad kitties, psychotic cookie babies and aliens stealing underpants, the Grimms' cannibal husband doesn't seem all that bad.
Buy Charles Memminger's hilarious new book, "Hey, Waiter, There's An Umbrella In My Drink!" at island book stores or online
at any book retailer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org