by J.A. Mawter
Published by HarperCollins Australia
176 pages, 2004
Buy it online
Engrossed in Gross-Out
Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski
Long ago Roald Dahl discovered that children like their humor crude: the cruder the better. As a result, he became one of the most popular children's writers ever. He died long ago, but his books are still in print, still selling. Even the charming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has characters falling into lakes of chocolate and having other nasty experiences. There is still, of course, a market for this kind of humor, children being children. It's the same taste that makes children devour juvenile horror fiction, as disgusting as they can get.
In Australia, a number of heirs to Dahl have emerged. Paul Jennings, whose bizarre tales have been filmed for children's television, is one of the few Australian writers who can make a full-time living out of it. Andy Griffiths, another popular writer, has recently produced a book about which an awful lot of fuss has been made. These writers will never win a prize given by the Children's Book Council, but they do tend to win awards voted on by their readers, time after time.
And then there's J.A. (Jeni) Mawter, who was asked to write under a neutral name because the publishers didn't think children would accept this sort of fiction written by a woman. Like the other writers mentioned above, it's doubtful she will ever win the CBC's Book of the Year, but her work certainly appeals to reluctant readers.
So Grotty is one of a number of story collections. Unlike Paul Jennings' collections, Mawter's book is not quite an anthology of short stories -- the four stories in this book are more like chapter books collected under the same cover, linked by poems. They're not quite like Jennings in style, either. When you read a Paul Jennings story, you know it's written by a male -- one who remembers the embarrassments only a young boy can suffer. In the end, that's really what Paul Jennings' stories are about, fantasy elements notwithstanding and despite their being just as popular with girls.
Mawter's stories are different. There are young males in them, but the issues aren't the same. "And They're Off!" involves an accident during a wheelbarrow race and revenge on an unfair teacher -- a non-physical revenge. The connected poem, "PE Blues," involves underwear. "A Sole To Bare" concerns a fairytale princess with smelly feet and a rather disgusting solution. There are references to various fairytales and Lewis Carroll, clearly aimed at the adult reading the story to the child. It is followed by "Mother Cannibal's Advice" involving feet, of course. In "A Nice Sort of Vase," a boy invites his friends for a sleepover at the home of his grandmother. It turns out that grandma is not only keeping her late husband's ashes in his urn, but still talking to him and feeding him meals. Never mind what happens to the ashes: just don't read the story over dinner. "The meaning of Life" poem is about poo (what else?) "All That Glitters" is about a boy who wants to impress a girl with an unusual birthday gift and gets more than he bargained for.
The cartoon illustrations, by Gus Gordon, are appropriate to the author's style. The cover is from "All That Glitters," showing a screaming girl and her new "pet" leaping from its gift box. It is certainly likely to attract a child reader.
The stories are just the sort of over-the-top "grotty" fiction enjoyed by most children, before their tastes turn towards the depressing in their teen years. The stories are not the least bit deep or meaningful and there's no point in buying class sets for study, but if you want to attract reluctant readers, this collection is a good place to start. | January 2005
Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.