LIANE HANSEN, host:
According to Barry Yourgrau, nice is overrated. He prefers nasty, defined as twisted and causing dangerous and severe laughter. Yourgrau is the author of a new book of stories for children called appropriately "NASTYbook," and it is filled with images that adults may find disgusting but kids love--a superhero who farts, for example. Barry Yourgrau is in the studios of NPR West.
Mr. BARRY YOURGRAU (Author, "NASTYbook"): How are you?
HANSEN: I'm well. Tell us the story of the Invincible Stinker(ph). Why am I laughing? I'm an adult, I'm supposed to find this disgusting.
Mr. YOURGRAU: That's a great line. `Tell us the story of the Invincible Stinker.'
Mr. YOURGRAU: It's about a superhero who finds his normal, you know, dropkicks-of-fury stuff sort of fading away, his body's giving away, and he succumbs to depression. And in his depression, he sits at home, just stuffs himself with junk food, etc. etc., and develops very bad wind. And so he's reached bottom. He finally rushes out to do one more intervention as his old self, and instead, his body gives way as he is attempting to break up a robbery, and he lets out a tremendous fart, which inadvertently turns out to be a tremendous weapon. So then he becomes--tries to reclaim his career.
HANSEN: Now what's the age group you're aiming for here other than us--me in my 50s? I mean...
Mr. YOURGRAU: People from Mars. No, any--the idea was for nine- to 12-year-olds and then also adults, cross-listed. But what I found as being on book tour is it slides over into older kids. And to my amazement and delight, these eight-year-old girls, their moms or dad bring them along to see me read, and they sit in the front row gleefully and want the nastiest stories.
HANSEN: There are other stories. I mean, many children's stories, for example, I'm thinking kind of maybe "Aesop's Fables" or other kinds of morality tales, you know?
Mr. YOURGRAU: Mm-hmm. Sure. Cautionary tales. Yeah.
HANSEN: Yeah, cautionary tales. And many of yours fit that bill. And there's one called "Ugly..."
Mr. YOURGRAU: Yes.
HANSEN: ...which is poignant.
Mr. YOURGRAU: You know, I wanted to write stories that were ridiculous and nasty and sort of just horrifically hyperbolic, you know, of things. But then I also wanted--and funny--but I also wanted a--because I was reading Hans Christian Andersen and was really startled and shocked at how cruel and sad his stories are unblemishably. And I like that as a tonality among all the mischief and fun and ha, ha, ha to put in some moments of real sadness.
HANSEN: You start that out with the very first story called "Parents." And you have these, you know, hip, cool parents that basically tell their kid, you know, `I'm sorry. Your real parents are coming. You're not cool enough for this family. See ya.' I mean, that's a child's worst nightmare, you know?
Mr. YOURGRAU: Ain't it?
Mr. YOURGRAU: It's also about--now I know. What I wanted to do with that story, I wanted to play--what I wanted to do was take anxieties and explode them and put them to such monstrous levels that they become funny. So that's about the abandonment complex, which we all have. But it's also--it flips open--over the idea that kids always think, `You know, I'm too good for these parents. I must be related to royalty,' you know? `These shmoos can't be my parents. Me. I'm too good for them.' So I wanted to flip that around and have it turn out where the parents were too cool for the kids.
HANSEN: You bring it up to, you know, contemporary times in this.
Mr. YOURGRAU: Right.
HANSEN: I mean, you've got, for example, a witch who is on the Internet.
Mr. YOURGRAU: Right.
HANSEN: And it's called "Old and Warty(ph)."
Mr. YOURGRAU: Exactly. That's her user name.
HANSEN: That's her user name: Old and Warty. But she's someone who actually sends spells through cyberspace.
Mr. YOURGRAU: Exactly. One of the ideas was I wanted to take fairly tale conventions and bring them up to date because it's humorous, you know? This is a book that's supposed to make people laugh, so I thought the idea of a witch sort of with her two ancient, warty fingers sending spells over the Internet was kind of great.
HANSEN: This book actually has been described as a "Twilight Zone" for kids. Do you think that's a good description?
Mr. YOURGRAU: I think it's a great description. As a matter of fact, I like to say it's a twisted "Twilight Zone" for kids or a "Twilight Zone" for twisted kids. I came to the States from South Africa when I was 10. In South Africa, we didn't have television. So when I arrived in the States, television was just an amazing thing. It was still the black-and-white era, and it was the era when "Twilight Zone" was in its heyday. And that series made a tremendous impression on me and really carried through and is the inspiration for a lot of the book.
HANSEN: You also take on, I mean, the idea of the nine-year-old, the 10-year-old always questioning the parent's authority. And how many myths we've been told like `Don't cross your eyes, they'll stay that way.' Well, you'd take something like that, you know, to the extreme.
Mr. YOURGRAU: I know. There's a story--one of my favorite stories--called "You'll Find Out," which is a cautionary tale. And the opening line is, `A boy likes to pick his nose.' And then it becomes a really kind of over-the-top cautionary tale, where he gets--let's put it this way--a wormy, monstrous surprise of a lesson in why he should not pick his nose, why he should stick his fingers elsewhere. When I was on book tour with my girlfriend, I said, `When I speak to schools,' because I've been going to schools a lot, it's been great, `Shall I open with that story or should I close with that story?' And she said, `No. Just show them what you got. Open with it.' You know what? It's much better to close with it because it gets--what I love is that the teachers or the adults in the room all sort of grin when they see that opening line, and all the kids go, `Eww! Yuck!' So I've been sort of--I like to say I've been going around the country making classes of school children go, `Eww! Yuck!'
HANSEN: Barry Yourgrau is the author of the "NASTYbook," a collection of icky but funny stories for kids. And he joins us from NPR West. Thanks a lot.
Mr. YOURGRAU: A pleasure, Liane.
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