As a writer, I specialize in very brief, surreal fictions. For instance, I wrote a story (a personal favorite) in which I capture a runaway vagina from up a tree.
Some years ago, my then-agent suggested that, being a fabulist, I should write a children's book. The market was hot.
I had a brainstorm. An edgy one. Why not stories for kids that mocked the uplifting vision of children's lit? Instead of everything turning out for the best, everything would turn out for the worst. It would be my riff on the tradition of cautionary tales such as Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter) or the savagery in the pages of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.
It would be a provocative book—and funny. Nastybook. A kids' lit editor bought it based on my sample pieces. I turned in the full manuscript. The editor informed me the stories were much nastier than she expected. And she rejected Nastybook.
That was the first warning.
Another editor, however—hipper I would call her—loved it. NASTYbook (as it was now styled) came out.
As I say, I meant to be provocative and outrageous. To prey on children's intimate fears and hopes—abandonment, ugliness, vulnerability, physical terror, desire to be admired and have agency—but to use shared laughter ("merry" laughter, in my promo-writing mind) to assure and empower the young reader.
But I recall one marketing meeting where the topic of bullying came up, and someone hesitantly murmured, so softly I think I was the only one who heard, that in my book's world, bullies would win... I grinned crookedly.
That was the radical angle I underestimated, the no-no line I crossed. In my stories, by and large, kids were the losers. I made kids the butt of the joke. Can you get away with that in kids' books, if you're winking and funny?
I went on a tour. In Midwestern primary schools, I read aloud my cautionary little monstrous fable, for instance, about nose-picking, that left the teachers with straining smiles and 80 semi-hysterical grossed-out kids to be calmed down after I departed. In San Francisco, after an event at a bookstore, I was informed a local school had decided to cancel me.
Understand, many youngsters liked, even loved, my stories—particularly, I noticed, bright young girls who'd read all of Lemony Snicket and were looking for something new. They sat in the front rows of readings with their dads. They particularly enjoyed the more vicious pieces.
But at one brunch party in New York, where I live, an old pal of mine cackled awkwardly and confessed his wife wouldn't allow NASTYbook in the house.
The reviews were a mix of good and bad. The standout was in a publication called the Metapsychology Online Review, by a philosophy professor specializing in psychiatry and psychology:
What distinguishes Yourgrau's little sketches is the complete lack of hope and justice, or even humanity. These stories are, as advertised, exercises in nastiness, with occasional flashes or wit or humor. Some young people may like this... but if they do, they should be locked up.
They should be locked up...
"No," declared my own shrink in her little windowless office, "these aren't stories for kids."
"You don't think the humor saves them?" I protested wanly, beating my old drum.
Anyway, my original idea had been to publish the book as both for kids and adults. However such a cross-listing befuddles bookstores, apparently. NASTYbook (and its blighted follow-ups, Another NASTYbook and Yet Another NASTYbook) went out of print, though there was TV interest for a while.
Here then are two stories from NASTYbook. They're among my favorites. Appropriate for kids? You decide for yourself. Or ask a young person.
You'll Find Out
A boy likes to pick his nose.
A harmless habit, a rather human one, you'd think. But whenever his mother sees him at it, she scolds him.
"One day you'll dig out a very unwelcome surprise," she warns darkly.
"Like what?" he says, finger you-know-where.
"Stop!" she demands. "You'll find out if you keep that up! And it's disgusting!"
"Says who?" says the boy. And he grins. "What's the big deal?"
Things get to the point where his mother actually sends him to a doctor. The doctor isn't that old, but he looks worn out and haggard, with dark circles under his eyes and pasty anxious skin.
He asks the boy details about his nose-picking habits. The boy answers the questions with a sullen shrug. Then he notices the wads of tissue paper stuffed into the doctor's nostrils.
He grins to himself.
The doctor stands over him, shaking his head. "Man to man," he says—"man to man, your mother is right, you should listen to her. Awful things will come of this awful habit!"
"That so?" says the boy, boldly. "I'll bet you like to pick your nose, doc—you just stuffed all that paper up your nose, so you wouldn't be able to. But you'd like to!"
"No!" cries the doctor. He turns red. "All right—yes!" he croaks. "But I've stopped—but too late, too late for me!"
"What's that mean?" grins the boy, and defiantly he reaches up to pick away. Then he freezes.
The doctor is staring at him very strangely.
A violent shudder shakes the medical man. A wad of his nostril paper bursts out. He gasps and shudders again, and a long very thin gray worm, like a strand of overcooked spaghetti, waves out into the air from his nose.
The boy tries to scream, but he's too paralyzed.
The doctor grabs at the nasal intruder with frantic hands. But it's not that easy to seize hold of. The more the doctor fumbles and flaps, the longer and longer the worm grows, slithering from its nostril lair.
The disgusting creature starts to wind around the doctor's head, like one of those long telephone cords that can get you so entangled.
"Call the nurse!" gasps the doctor, struggling as the worm winds tighter. "Hurry—" He topples back over a chair and thrashes around hideously on the carpet. "Hurry—!"
The boy finally comes to life and runs shouting into the corridor. The nurses rush in and manage to save the doctor. They even chuckle at the whole thing, in a grim way, as they bundle the appalling worm into the medical trash.
"Now don't let all this get to you," the head nurse comforts the traumatized boy, with a smile. "It's a perfectly harmless little pleasure," she whispers, tapping her nose and winking. Then she gives a twitch. She shudders. Frantically her hands jerk up to cover her nostrils, but a little gray head peeps out between her fingers. "It's nothing—ignore it!" sputters the nurse, starting to writhe. "Just ignore it!"
From that day on, believe me, the boy sticks his fingers elsewhere.
A boy who's afraid of the dark—let's call him Maurice—goes to stay with his uncle. His uncle lives alone deep in the woods in a dark, old, gloomy house.
"So I hear you're afraid of the dark!" the uncle says to Maurice with a snort at their first dinner, which is by candlelight in the great, dark, drafty dining hall.
"M-maybe a little b-bit," Maurice answers, startled by his uncle's harsh tone. And his peculiar pale appearance.
"Well, we'll cure you of that pronto," his uncle informs him. "I've put you in the bedroom that's haunted."
Maurice turns pale as a ghost himself. "You h-have?" he says.
"Haunted by a hideous, terrifying ghost, an insane murderer who ripped his victims' hearts out and ate these as they screamed and bled! And was tortured to death himself by the brutal posse who captured him. Torn into little pieces! So what d'you think of that?" booms the uncle, his eyes narrowing into sinister slits.
"I—I—" stammers Maurice, barely able to keep from fainting. His horrible uncle seems to swim in the candlelight.
There's a terrible pause. Then the uncle grins.
"Hey, kiddo, just teasing," he says. And he laughs. He sits there laughing, laughing and pointing at the boy. Maurice stares at him, stunned. Then slowly he laughs too. Out of sheer relief, out of the whole crazy, scary scene. The dining room table turns into an uproar of the two of them laughing. The uncle hoots and hoots, he claps his forehead with his hand, in merriment, he throws back his head to bellow with laughter—And his head topples off and bounces on the floor and rolls away. Away into the shadows. And is silent.
Maurice's scream strangles in his throat. "Unc—, unc—" he squawks, incoherently.
There's a horrible, stricken silence. Then a strange voice speaks, from deep in the shadows behind Maurice, so his skin turns to ice and his hair tingles.
"Whoops," says the voice. It chuckles quietly. "Oh well, for a dead person, he worked well enough for a while." And it chuckles some more. Maurice hears a strange, squealing moan, which he then realizes is coming from himself.
"Why don't you get up and come back here, into the deep shadows?" says the voice. "And bring your heart with you."
"D-do I have t-to?" whimpers Maurice, who's been taught to be unfailingly polite, always.
"Oh yes," says the voice.
After a pause, the terrified Maurice gets out of his chair and turns, and moaning, he wobbles slowly into the dark shadows at the back of the great, gloomy, drafty dining hall.
"Poor kid, you're afraid of the dark already," says the voice, sounding very close.
"Well, you're going to be afraid a lot worse, I can promise." And it chuckles.
And that's how things work out sometimes, what can I tell you?
Barry Yourgrau's books include Mess, Wearing Dad's Head, and The Sadness of Sex, in whose film version he starred. He lives in New York and Istanbul. His website is barryyourgrau.com.