Written by Audrey Wood, Illustrated by Audrey and Don Wood
Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988
One afternoon at an elegant garden party, young Elbert heard a word he had never heard before.
The plot in a nutshell: A boy uses a bad word at a garden party.
The word appears as a small ugly thing, covered with dark hair and Elbert grabs it, puts it in his pocket and forgets about it. But during the garden party, it escapes his pocket and finds its way into his mouth. At that point, a series of misfortunes strikes the party, with the butler dropping deviled eggs onto a woman who spills a drink on a man who throws his croquet mallet, which lands on Elbert’s foot, causing the bad word to come flying out of his mouth, larger than ever. Everyone is shocked and Elbert’s mother washes his mouth out with soap. Elbert runs to the gardener, who also happens to be a wizard. The gardener sees the bad word sitting on Elbert’s shoulder and bakes him a cake made with some new words from a drawer. Elbert eats the cake and the bad word gets smaller and smaller as he does. Another chain of events causes another mallet to drop on Elbert’s toe and this time, he utters several exclamations, but none of them are bad. He sees the word shrink even further and run down a hole in the ground.
Author Audrey Wood was inspired to write this story after her son said a bad word. I guess nearly every parent has some kind of experience with this. I remember a particularly jarring moment when my son was in his preschool learning-to-read-so-he-reads-everything phase. He pointed to some spray-painted (and very naughty) profanity on a nearby wall and read it with the same adorable enthusiasm with which he read Green Eggs and Ham, and then beamed up at me with pride at being able to read such new and unusual words. I like the way this story presents the bad word as a fuzzy little monster that grows and grows as Elbert continues to think about it.
Ms. Wood’s books were usually illustrated entirely by her husband, Don. This one, however, was a collaborative effort in which she did the pencil drawings and he finished them in watercolor, gouache and colored pencils. The illustrations are filled with people and you get the idea that this garden party just has tons of people crammed shoulder to shoulder in someone’s backyard. They were a little too busy for me, honestly. Of course, we get the obligatory scene of Elbert’s mother washing his mouth out with soap and I’m glad we get to see that this has no impact (as it’s a really questionable practice). The story is probably a little old-fashioned (and the gardener/wizard thing was strange), but overall I liked the way it presented its message.
And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that there is always a better way to express yourself than by using words that are hurtful.