You’re a Bad Man, Mr. Gum!
By Andy Stanton
Illustrated by Chad Dezern
Harper Collins Publishers
On shelves now
Children’s books about miserly, nasty, no good, rotten old men go one of two ways. Either the old man is redeemed at the end and Tiny Tim lives, etc. etc. or you get to the end of the book and the miserly, nasty, no good, rotten old man hasn’t changed a jot. He’s just been thwarted. A kind of Count Olaf ending, if you will. The nice thing about Andy Stanton’s Mr. Gum books is that they’re written with a two-dimensional villain in place with whom you never, at any point, sympathize. Stanton is a fan of goofiness and is willing to pile a whole bunch of weirdness on top of itself in the hopes that there will be enough funny material to keep the kids ah-reading. For the most part, You’re a Bad Man, Mr. Gum! works and even when it doesn’t it just seems to be so pleased with itself that you can’t help but feel some affection for it. This isn’t the strongest silly book for kids I’ve ever read, but it has its heart in the right place.
Mr. Gum is nasty, to begin with. Nasty heart, nasty soul, nasty housekeeping skills, the whole enchilada. The one thing about Mr. Gum that is not nasty is his lovely little garden. Lest you attribute this to something noble in his soul, you should know that the only reason he keeps it tidy is that if he doesn’t the angry fairy that lives in his bathtub will hit him repeatedly on the head with a frying pan. It’s one of those deals. All would be well and good if it were not for a big massive whopper of a dog named Jake. Jake likes gardens and he especially likes Mr. Gum’s garden. After getting whopped continually by the fairy every time Jake makes a foray into his yard, Mr. Gum comes up with a malicious plan to take care of the friendly canine forever. Now it’s up to a little girl named Polly and an eccentric old man named Friday O’Leary to save Jake from Mr. Gum’s nefarious intentions before (or possibly after) it’s too late.
The jokes are what make the book work, because when they’re on, they’re on. When we first meet Mr. Gum, for example, we hear that "the bed was never made. (I don’t mean that the duvet was never put back on the bed, I mean that the bed had never even been made. Mr. Gum hadn’t gone to the bother of assembling it. He had just chucked all the bits of wood on the floor and dumped a mattress on top." What’s more, "He would much rather hear a piano being demolished by illegal bulldozers than a Mozart concerto." I love that it couldn’t be just any bulldozers. It would have to be ILLEGAL bulldozer. Jake, on the other hand is, "a furry wobbler and friendly as toast."
Individual British terminology appears to have been maintained, for the most part. Mr. Gum’s punishment from the fairy is called "pan-whacks". A man is described as moving like "a footballer" rather than a soccer player, which is interesting. And continuing a trend I’ve seen in more than a few books for children this year, there is a glossary of amusing terms at the back of the book ala Lois Lowry’s The Willoughbys (though many of these are referring to Britishisms and the like). Here’s an example of one of the definitions then. "Scotland: It’s a place near England where everyone’s got beards, even the women. And the men wear skirts and everyone shouts a lot and has an okay time. By the way, it’s freezing up there in winter, so don’t bother." There you go then.
Sometimes the book is right on track and sometimes it skews a little too far towards the goofy. I mean the plot hangs together, which is important. You don’t want to get to the end of a children’s book and find the storyline erupt into some kind of Blazing Saddles/Monty Python and the Holy Grail unsatisfactory unfunny descent into madness. It doesn’t do that, but at the same time there are things that never entirely work. Friday O’Leary, for example, is a pretty superfluous character. The jokes have moments when they just don’t click. It’s all going to come down to the personality of the person reading the book, really. If the kid reading You’re a Bad Man, Mr. Gum! thinks that the inanity of a frying pan lobbing fairy is funny without explanation (and, of course, there never is one) then this will be the book for them.
Credit where credit is due to illustrator Chad Dezern too. While I’ve nothing against the British illustrations to this book, Dezern has a penchant for clear cut lines and heavy shading that complements Mr. Stanton’s words nicely. Plus, some of his images are more than a little interesting if you’re willing to peer really closely at them. For example, there is an image of a newspaper that Mr. Gum has purchased solely for the purpose of glaring at the picture of the boy on the front page (sometimes Mr. Gum just need a good glare at a child to make himself feel better). Of course, if you look at the newspaper, I mean really look, you’ll read not a story about a 10-year-old burping champion (as the headline suggests) but a story about a 53-year-old India born Toronto resident named Yegmb Varbade. This probably wasn’t intentional on the artist’s part, but I don’t think I’m the only reader who felt inclined to peer closely at the picture so as to tease out the story. It’s not entirely clear to me whether or not Mr. Dezern would have actually have been responsible for that item, though. In the book there are some fun "found item" types of things in this book, like slightly crinkled pieces of sheet music and the like. Is that the work of the illustrator or of the Art Director? It’s a bit unclear.
All in all You’re a Bad Man, Mr. Gum! is almost a kind of post-Captain Underpants title. There are lots of pictures, making this an ideal early chapter book for those kids not quite ready for full 200-page pictureless work of fiction. What’s more, I think that as a bedtime story, Andy Stanton’s book is ideal for reading aloud. Teachers may wish to try it out on their third graders, fourth graders, and maybe even fifth graders too. It has some gaps and some oddities, but like that massive whopper Jake, its heart is in the right place. For a certain kind of kid, this book will answer their prayers.
I can’t help but note that a lot of illustrators out there have done character designs for this book because of some sort of assignment. Here then are the pictures from Mette Vestergaard Madsen, Lars Kramhoeft, Arthur Gil Larsen,
Listen to the first chapter here.
Note Chad Dezern’s nice website Winged Robots.
The book was the winner of the Red House Children’s Book Award.
You can win a copy of this tale right here.
And, of course, if you’ve a mind to you can look inside the book here: