Chocolate Cake by Julie Falatko
Is all reading important? You bet. Because you never know which words will steer your life in a new direction.
A nonfiction (grownup) book came out in December 2015 called First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson. One of the things Wilson talks about is that we dislike food we’re forced to eat. As soon as pressure is involved, that food becomes a kind of punishment. Vegetables are good for you, and so you have to eat them. I don’t care if you like them or not, buster, you have to eat them. And so of course you don’t like the punishment broccoli as much as the celebratory cupcake.
I immediately thought of reading, and books. Books are good for you, but how often are books the Brussels sprouts in a kid’s life? Books should be the chocolate cake. There is a chocolate cake book for everyone out there. I’m sure of it.
Most kids see through our attempts at, “Hey! Look at this fun food! They’re little trees!” They also don’t buy it when we say, “Oh, I think you’ll love this book that’s nothing like what you normally love to read.” But if there’s no pressure, you’ll try the broccoli. You’ll try the new genre.
Anytime we tell someone that what they’re reading is wrong, that’s it’s not nutritious enough, we make them like reading a little less.
In middle school, I was already an avid reader and budding writer. I read Cricket magazine and realistic contemporary novels by Norma Klein and Ellen Conford. I wrote the beginning paragraphs of many stories about topics important to me, like how pigeons might be evil, or the dangers of sports. I also spent a lot of time at my friend Andy’s house. Andy was an only child like me, and there was something comforting and familiar about his house, the boy version of the no-sibling experience, the slightly wealthier version, with more things and different things. A drum set. A television in his room. VHS tapes of Monty Python, Airplane!, and The Young Ones, and back issues of MAD magazine, which all made me laugh, a certain brand of intelligent ridiculousness that made me feel like a genius for laughing at it.
I’d never seen MAD before I saw it at Andy’s house, and I mostly liked the clever page-folding gimmick at the back. I wasn’t particularly politically savvy or even pop-culture savvy, so I missed a lot of the references.
But it was in MAD magazine that I had a revelation about what I find humorous. I read a comic by Don Martin called One Evening at Home. In it, a lady is cutting her toenails. Her husband is drinking a beer. One of her toenail clippings goes on the floor. Another goes into his beer. “Edna, that’s disgusting!” he yells. And then, there it is, the turn, the twist, the thing that made me think this was some new form of humor: “You only got one out of five!” he says. “You’ll never make State Finals with that kind of shooting!” Edna turns to walk out, dejected, showing the back of her shirt, where “Toenail Clipping Team” is written.
It’s dumb, I know.
But it grabbed my shoulders and gave me a shake. Something about that setup, where you think it’s one thing (she’s clipping her toenails) and then that thing seems to be confirmed (her husband says it’s disgusting) and then it turns out to be something else entirely – I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
There’s something incredibly smart about that dumb comic.
Here it is, more than thirty years later, and I’m still thinking about it.
Silly + unexpected. That was my new rallying cry. Seventh-grader me wrote a novel about kids campaigning against vegetables, who, at the end, were treated to a delicious buffet feast by a lady president, who then informed them that the meal was made entirely of vegetables.
I wrote a joke-heavy story about a wisecracking stable boy who lived in a town where everybody mispronounced everything, and who saved the day with his knowledge of ducks.
I wrote an angsty teenage story about kids on a bus ride, but it turned out to be a bus ride to HELL!
I am so lucky that no one ever told me what to read. No one said, “Read this, not that.”
MAD magazine is not kale. It’s chocolate cake for sure. But it was necessary, just like all reading is. I would be a different writer, a different person, today, if I had not read that Don Martin comic in 1983.
All reading is nutritious, and while I do think that a varied reading diet is healthy, sometimes you only want to read one kind of thing, and that’s okay. Anyone with a kid who eats only cheese for three months knows this. That kid just needs cheese. Their diet, over the course of a year, balances out. Comics lead to graphic novels to adventure stories to Tolkien. MAD leads to a writer like me.
And so now my first book has been published. Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book), illustrated by Tim Miller, is out from Viking Children’s Books. It’s silly + unexpected, just like you’d expect.
There might be some broccoli in there. But I hope it’s your chocolate cake.
Julie Falatko is the author of Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book), illustrated by Tim Miller, which is available today. Her next books are The Society of Underrepresented Animals, illustrated by Charles Santoso, and Help Wanted: One Rooster, both of which will be published by Viking Children’s Books. She is a fan of chocolate cake in all its forms.