A friend of mine, whose children are now grown, once told me that when his children were young, he had Curse Word Night every Wednesday evening at dinner in his home. He and his wife would ask their kids what, if any, curse words they heard on the playground, and they’d discuss them. They would tell their children what the words meant and explain in what context they are typically used.
I’ve shared that story with other parents before, only to get strange looks. And that’s because those parents didn’t agree with me when I said that what I think he did was smart.
Much like Jim Tobin’s picture book, The Very Inappropriate Word, illustrated by Dave Coverly, is smart. It tells the story of young Michael, who collects words—from road signs, television, sports events, school and more. Daily, he puts the words in a box under his bed. He’s not noting them on paper, mind you; Coverly has him take the very speech bubbles he hears and stuff them in a giant box.
One day on the school bus (where else?), he hears a word previously unknown to him. Illustrated as a series of speech bubble-encased symbols (which, amusingly, some people refer to as profanitype), the word is all-encompassing, literally hairy and appears to buzz with electric energy. The kid who mutters the word? He’s looking at his report card. Nice touch, Coverly.
Michael loves words, remember. This word is shiny and new to him. It’s mysterious and compelling. He takes it. He hides it in his pocket, despite his sister’s warnings. He listens carefully and realizes that lots of adults use it, and so he shares it with other children at school. Eventually, Mrs. Dixon, his teacher, realizes that Michael is the source of the class’ new favorite word. She asks him to stay after school.
In the hands of a less perceptive author, one who thinks children need good, wholesome lessons in their picture books, Michael would have gotten lectured. The end.
But Tobin has respect for child readers. Mrs. Dixon’s response is to send Michael to the library to find some new words for her spelling lists. Michael gets to work and discovers a whole host of new words, while poring over books in fascination: sick words (“pox”), words that sing (“vibrato”), words that crackle in your head (“kindling”), words that you have to handle with care (“flimsy”), words that spy (“sleuth”), words that new words surpassed (“egghead” to “nerd”), and much more. All the while, the powerful curse word, stuck in his back pocket, diminishes in size and loses some of its energy. In the end, it’s forgotten altogether.
What Mrs. Dixon has done is demystify the word not by explaining its meaning and/or uses (my friend’s tactic and certainly one way to do it), but by tacitly acknowledging its existence as just another word in our complex language. The boy doesn’t need an adult to lecture him about the inappropriate nature of the word. He figures that out quickly on his own, based merely on everyone’s dramatic responses to it. By being introduced to other intriguing and wonderful words, the very inappropriate word loses its power.
And it’s acknowledging the existence of—and understanding the power of—such inappropriate words that is important for children. Because, no matter how much parents try to protect their children from the vagaries of the world, they’re going to see and hear and sense it all. Mrs. Dixon acknowledges this with a cool, calm demeanor and lots of wisdom.
Coverly has a lot of fun with the illustrations, adjusting his speech bubbles to suit the words with which Michael is infatuated: The speech bubble for “smithereens” breaks to pieces, and the word “slacker” is in a speech bubble that doubles as a person asleep in bed, snoring. Coverly’s cartoon style is lively and filled with funny details—Michael’s too busy exploring the word “slugger” on his bat to actually swing at the ball at home plate during a baseball game—as well as moments of wonder. (The illustration for “vast”—“[Michael] especially liked little words for big things”—is lovely.)
Also worth noting is that Michael is multiracial, which we don’t see too terribly often in picture books, and I also love that it’s his mother, tools hanging out of her pockets, engaging in profanitype when fixing the toilet. Here’s to picture book mothers, amateur plumbers and all, who defy stereotypes.
A rousing and very appropriate read, especially for word-lovers.
THE VERY INAPPROPRIATE WORD. Copyright © 2013 by Jim Tobin. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Dave Coverly. Published by Christy Ottaviano Books/Henry Holt, New York. Spread used with permission of Henry Holt.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.