I bought this book for two reasons: because I was interested in seeing what else Tom Angleberger (author of the uber-mega-bestselling ORIGAMI YODA series) had written, and, more importantly, because it had “poop fountain” in the title.
Going into the book, I felt like I already knew what I’d find. An adventure story, of course, and one studded with the sort of gross-out humor promised by the title.
And yes – I got all that.
But I also got so much more.
Despite the fantastic-sounding title, POOP FOUNTAIN! is extremely real. The poop fountain, for instance, is an actual feature of an actual sewage treatment plant (there are even pictures of the place included in the book to prove it). But the realness that truly surprised and excited me was that of the characters.
Our narrator, Lyle, lives in a trailer park, and his parents both work at a nearby convenience store (the Qwikpick mentioned in the title). One of his best friends, Marilla, is a Jehovah’s Witness, and the other, Dave, is Jewish.
In almost any other kids’ book, the facts above would become the story’s central issues, and would be tackled (and maybe even tortured) until a lesson was wrung out of them. But here, instead, they are simply stated, and allowed to guide the story exactly as much as they really might in the book’s characters’ lives.
I was recently reminded of the QWIKPICK series while reading an article in the latest issue of the magazine WIRED. In it, Jason Parham discusses the recent crop of TV shows that have featured and starred black actors and other American minorities. He begins the piece by recalling the shows he watched as a kid in the ‘90s on the United Paramount Network. “UPN couldn’t match the budget of broadcast rivals like NBC,” he writes, “but it was the only one of the Big Five that devoted a considerable slate of programming to investigating black lives.” The thing about this programming that so interested and excited Parham back then, and that now seems to him so revolutionary, was the way that these shows didn’t make a big deal about their characters’ blackness. “These were not tales of the exceptional but of the mundane . . . These shows were disruptive by virtue of their very perspective: Blackness was the default, not the subject matter.”
This is exactly what I found so refreshing about Angleberger’s book. Living in a trailer park, having parents who work unglamorous jobs and friends of different and often-ridiculed religions – this is all the default, not the subject matter. (And neither is Marilla’s blackness, which is never mentioned in the book but is clear from the illustration on the book’s title page.)
Toward the end of his piece, Parham quotes Shonda Rhimes, “creative architect behind ABC’s Thursday-night scheduling block of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder.” In a speech she gave at a Human Rights Campaign gala, she said, “I really hate the word diversity. I have a different word: normalizing. I’m normalizing TV. I am making TV look like the world looks.”
In his own way, Angleberger is normalizing kids’ books. And, perhaps paradoxically, he does more to promote the sort of empathy in readers that so many books for kids try to (and should). Because kids don’t always need their hands held, and when, in books or on TV, they encounter characters in different circumstances than their own who nonetheless face the same problems and feel the same emotions they do, they will reach the conclusion that those differences are mostly superficial all on their own – and that, in the end, is the best possible way to learn a lesson.
. . .
To read Jason Parham’s article in the most-recent issue of WIRED – and you should – click here.