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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 6, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Battle Bunny, Journey, Inhumanity

I suppose I should have outgrown children's picture books long ago. But I haven't.

There are a lot of picture books that I never liked in the first place, so I couldn't outgrow them. Even as a child, the ones with pretentiously "childlike" art offended me. Children don't draw that way because they prefer it; they draw that way because they can't do better.

But in their imagination, what they draw is meant to be real and beautiful. Why would a child want a book filled with art he could have drawn himself?

Well, I know of one that breaks this rule -- and all the others. A young cousin of mine works as a children's and young adult librarian in Los Angeles, and on my last visit there she recommended a couple of books that were, in a word, essential.

The title of Battle Bunny wasn't all that promising. Until she explained: The concept is that a boy named Alex was given a picture book called Birthday Bunny by his grandmother as a gift.

Maybe he liked it fine when he first got it. But now he has definitely outgrown it. Picking it up one day, he realized that its deficiency was that it was so sweet and tame.

So Alex, armed with a pencil, redid the book. He crossed out many words and replaced them. He added many new elements to the pictures. Now the book was called Battle Bunny, and it was exactly the kind of book he liked.

When the book arrived at our house by mail order, my first thought was, Who sent me this beat-up old book? Because even though the copy I got was brand new, it had been printed to look old and worn, right down to a slightly bowed cover.

Inside, it was pure delight. Often a book with a great concept will suffer in the execution. Like Ellen DeGeneres's pizza-buying bit at the Oscars, even a brilliant comic idea can be carried on too long without variation. Yes, yes, you're getting people in tuxes to pony up and help pay for the pizza -- but do you have to get money from so many people, one at a time?

Funny once, not five times in a row.

But the creators of this book -- writers Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett and illustrator Matthew Myers -- did not flag in their invention. Each page is fresh and funny.

This is a children's picture book for kids who are getting a little old for children's picture books.

It's also for the parents of children who sometimes draw in (i.e., "deface") their own picture books.

Ah ... this is what my child was trying to do with her magic marker!

Another book my librarian cousin recommended, Journey, involves a bored child with a crayon -- but it takes the opposite tack. It's about a little girl who sits on her front stoop in the city, obviously bored with her scooter. (We barely notice the boy with a purple crayon standing by a mailbox across the street.)

We see her house -- and the street itself -- in cross section, so we're aware of the pipes under the street, the boiler in the basement, Mom in the kitchen stirring something while talking on the phone, Dad in his office, a big sister watching YouTube on her smartphone.

On the next page she tries to interest them all in some kind of activity, but they're already involved in something and can't be drawn away. Alone in her room, the little girl is despondent. Even the cat is dozing.

But there's a red crayon on the floor. With it, she draws something -- on the wall. And then ...

And then Aaron Becker, the author and illustrator, takes her and us on the journey of the title. It's not just that we go to strange lands -- even in the details, nothing is quite like anything we've seen before. A city whose streets are all canals, with a system of locks so there are overpasses as if they were freeways.

Airships. Brave missions opposed by soldiers. And finally a return to the city, where at last she notices the boy with the purple crayon. Thus armed, they are fit companions for journeys to come.

In a way, both these books deal with the same situation: Adults too often think of children as "sweet" and "cute." But children don't live in a sweet-cute world. Theirs is a world full of strangeness and terror, interspersed with long periods of boredom which adults have little interest in dispelling.

What we call "play" is actually the work that children are supposed to be doing. So often their tasks require at least the permission of adults, if not their active help. The result is that without adult cooperation, children are trapped.

Can they help it if those pent-up impulses toward play find outlets in ways that adults might not have given permission for? That pencil will "draw all over that sweet book Grandma gave you" or "color on the wall and now I'll never get that out."

But ... but ... I asked you to help me with my work (i.e., "play with me") and you wouldn't. I had to do it all myself. Sorry if it messed up your wall or Grandma's book. But it was the wall in my room, a book that she gave me so it was mine, wasn't it?

Books for children don't always do a good job of representing the lives and interests of children.

Battle Bunny and Journey most assuredly do. Both of them are full of detailed art that children will be well rewarded for studying and thinking about and making sense of. Uncovering the layers of Battle Bunny, tracing just how the canals work in Journey -- these make the books enjoyable multiple times.

I strongly urge you: Don't just buy the books online and have Barnes & Noble ship them to your grandchildren/nieces/nephews. Order them to be delivered to your own door. Read them first. Then you'll know what they're going to discover when they open the package.

And if you're still raising kids yourself, I can promise you -- the kids who are way too old for picture books will sneak some good long looks at these.


By the way, while Journey is Aaron Becker's first book, John Scieszka of Battle Bunny has a history. Think of The Stinky Cheese Man, Math Curse, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, and other books of whimsy and satire.

His co-author Mac Barnett also wrote Extra Yarn, Count the Monkeys, and Bill Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem.

And my cousin gave me a list of a dozen picture books, which B&N will have delivered to my door (not, I'm happy to say, by drone) so I can steer you to other wonderful books.

Meanwhile, here's a perfectly awful book that you must hide from your children. It's not for them. K Is for Knifeball: An Alphabet of Terrible Advice is by Avery Monsen and Jory John, the team that brought us All My Friends Are Dead.

Like that book, Knifeball is only pretending to be a children's book. It's definitely for adults, and most of the humor comes from the fact that all these fun activities for children are exactly what you're afraid your kids are doing when you or the babysitter have your back turned.

Each rhyme is clever and appalling:

J is for justice.

Make sure things are fair.

If somebody wrongs you,

just cut off their hair.

S stands for sun

That shines bright every day.

How long can you stare at it?

Don't look away!

You get the idea. Best use for this book: Give it to people who already raised their kids, or to people who are expecting their first child. For the first group, it's a trip down memory lane. For the second group, it produces some really entertaining nightmares.


I've seen tablets -- iPad and Android -- used very productively on certain kinds of jobs.

One is data retrieval and very, very minimal data correction.

Let's say you're in a meeting, and you need a particular piece of data from the existing organizational database. It's a piece of cake to sign on and get the info.

And if that particular item needs a tweak -- a change in a person's address, correcting a minor error -- it's done in a moment.

But you wouldn't dream of doing serious data entry or spreadsheet creation on a tablet. Poking a virtual keyboard for each number and letter, one at a time? Not when you could wait and do it back at the office on a machine with a keyboard or keypad.

Another thing tablets are good for is small-group presentations. As long as you're only talking about five or six people, all close enough to see the tablet screen, and the graphics you're showing are big and bold enough to be visible to all, you're fine.

Of course, you'd better have the presentation preloaded on the tablet, because streaming it only works with a strong wi-fi signal with lots of bandwidth in the place where you're doing the presentation. How often is that under your control?

I've also seen people give speeches with their notes (or the whole text) on a tablet. Of course, they have to keep swiping the screen to bring their notes back after the tablet blanks on them. And there's no way they wrote the talk on a tablet.

I give speeches often enough to know that tablets would never work for me. That's because during the fifteen minutes leading up to the speech, when the topic has my entire concentration, I think of important things to clarify or add.

Because my notes are on paper, it takes only a few seconds to scrawl those new ideas in the margin, with an arrow to the point where I'm going to insert them in the speech.

But on a tablet, each letter of the new notation would have to be entered painfully, individually, on that virtual keyboard. That would never work for me.

Notice that in all these cases, the tablet isn't a productivity machine, it's mostly an access-and-playback machine, and even then the limitations are severe. A good laptop can do all of that -- and you can also use it to create the speech, enter the data, or assemble the presentation in the first place.

The only virtue of the tablet is that it's smaller and lighter to carry around and the battery lasts longer.

But is the tablet small and light enough? After all, smartphones can now do nearly everything that tablets do -- and as for small and light, they fit in your pocket and weigh little enough that it feels like nothing.

Data retrieval? Everybody around me routinely uses their phones for quick Google searches, and when the database they need is accessible by phone, they do it that way, too.

If a company or organization wanted to have this ability available to all their employees or members, they only have to let them sign on to the database with their phones.

You can even show a couple of people a picture or video on the phone. Good enough for a sales presentation to a single customer, or a demonstration to a single client.

There are productivity uses that fall between smartphone and laptop, but nobody has developed a tablet yet that can do them -- and I've been looking. (I say this knowing that as soon as this is published, some of my much-smarter and more-media-savvy friends will tell me about three pieces of hardware or software that do exactly what I'm asking for. But I really have looked.)

For instance, here's a job that is ideal for a tablet. I draw maps. Maps of fictional cities, nations, continents. And there are lots of drawing programs for tablets. But none of them gives me mapmaking tools -- stamp-on icons, the ability to create vectors rather than just capture strokes, the ability to create layers of complexity so I can zoom in and out from the same graphic database.

So I do it all on paper and then refer to it when I write fiction. If I need to make it exist in larger form, I hire an artist.

A serious, powerful drawing program that treated a tablet like a real graphics interface would be wonderful. But tablets rarely have anything like the computing power they'd need to run even rudimentary CAD software.

My laptab from Dell, whose screen flips conveniently from laptop to tablet mode, should do the job. I bought it precisely because it should have allowed me to have full access to all my Windows-dependent software, yet also get the graphics interface of a tablet.

Unfortunately, Windows 8.1 got in the way. I've already said enough about that gargoyle.

And there's another problem. To make my laptab light enough to be credible as a tablet, Dell, correctly, used a solid-state drive instead of a spinning drive.

Solid state is faster by orders of magnitude -- you boot in five seconds, bring up programs almost instantly. But solid-state drives are expensive, so we're talking 64 gigs instead of a terabyte. Good-bye to my 250 gigs of music and 150 gigs of audiobooks and Great Courses lectures.

I could work with a small subset of those if I could also plug in additional memory cards. With a single card slot I could plug in another 64 gigs, tripling my available drive space (since Windows itself chews up so much of the built-in "disk").

Fifty bucks more and my machine could do anything I needed.

But ... no card slot.

I know, I can use a USB flashdrive to get the memory I need. Only (a) it's not as fast and (b) it dangles off the tablet like a very weak handle, just begging to be jostled out of place or broken off.

If things are sticking out of it, it's not a tablet anymore. Though I am looking at the SanDisk Cruzer Fit CZ33, which has very little dangling. Maybe that will work well enough.

We're so close to a truly productive in-between machine, with my laptab. A good tablet interface (Android instead of Windows 8.1's vile WindowsPhone obstruction) and expandable drivespace, and my Dell laptab would be it.

Meanwhile, though, getting tablets for all your employees, instead of just making sure they have smartphones, is as bad a business decision right now as, say, buying cheap crappy laptops for schoolkids, or educational software for teachers, when paper and chalkboards do the job better at a tiny fraction of the cost.


It was my wife -- my sweetheart, the light of my life, the arbiter of good taste, who never says an unkind word about anybody who didn't run for office -- who introduced me to a game called Cards Against Humanity.

The game began online, and if you go to the website you can play it for free. This is remarkable because it is a party game -- basically, it's Apples to Apples for people who are weary of always leaving their darker thoughts unspoken.

In Cards Against Humanity, they get spoken. No, shouted. And laughed about. Or gasped at.

The subtitle is: "A Party Game for Horrible People." Well, that's true only if you think all humans are, by nature, horrible. Because we do sort language and ideas into piles ranging from Things You Can Say Anywhere to Things You Can Never Say or Even Admit You Think.

The thing is, nobody sorts the piles in exactly the same way. Yet there are some clear lines. For instance, there are Bad Words. Even if, like me, you think no words are intrinsically bad, they just have bad uses, that's a little disingenuous.

That's because Tourette's syndrome would not be possible if we all didn't have a little walled-off portion of our language-and-ideas hoard, where we know we'll get in trouble if we speak those things aloud. Even Tourette's sufferers have that wall -- they just have a compulsion to pick up wriggly slimy things from that hoard and hold them up for others to see.

If you're part of America's intellectual elite, you have a different list from the rest of us. For instance, the F-word is perfectly all right (which is why you insist on everybody's constitutional right to display or say it anywhere), but the N-word and C-word are evil, if spoken by a white person or a man, in that order. Which is why the Constitution can go hang -- people who use those words have to be silenced!

In other words, the impulse to condemn and restrict others' speech is a human universal -- we just have different lists. The elite thinks that words and ideas that offend religious people and old people are Admirable, and words and ideas that offend them are Despicable. But everybody has something that offends them.

You can be sure that whatever offends you, it's in Cards Against Humanity. It's an equal opportunity offender.

This game is in terrible taste -- that's why it's fun to play. You don't just bring it out with a random assortment of friends and you certainly don't bring it out in front of your mother. Instead, you carefully select whom you're going to invite to a party where this game will be played.

Of course, sometimes you guess wrong. You might lose a friend -- or gain one.

It's like the time I admitted that I liked Tosh.0 in front of a group of friends from church. To my surprise and delight, the one person who piped up with, "I love that show!" was a woman I would have thought was the most conservative of the group in matters of taste. You never know ...

Here's how it's played. Each round, one player asks a question from a Black Card, and everybody else chooses from their hand the White Card that provides the funniest (or most outrageous) answer.

All the answers are inappropriate. Get used to it.

Have you noticed that I'm not providing any examples? There's a reason for this. I don't want to make John and Elaine Hammer beat their heads against the wall deciding whether to let any of the cards go into print in the Rhino.

My long review of toilet paper a few years ago pushed the envelope about as far as it can go.

But if you want samples, you can go to http://www.CardsAgainstHumanity.com and see for yourself.

You can download the game for free. It's a .pdf, and you can print it out and cut up the cards and it will take about an hour and cost about ten bucks, or so they say.

To me, it's more trouble than it's worth. The published game isn't that expensive -- $25 for the basic set, and $10 for each of the other four (so far) expansion sets.

Once you've played, you'll want them all. That's because all the cards are funny at two levels.

The first and funniest level is the first time a new answer card is ever used in your hearing. You can't believe that somebody actually put that in print.

The second level is the actual gameplay. One of the people in your group used that White Card to fill in the blank on that Black Card! Clever! Funny!

The second level can last forever. But the first level requires new fodder from time to time.

There are also extras. For instance, there's "The bigger, blacker box" that will hold all the expansion sets. It's supposedly "completely empty inside," but it isn't. Take my word for it. It's in very, very bad taste. But the box is useful.

Here's the thing. There are limits. Or at least, I have limits.

So here are the house rules we use when playing with friends. If you get dealt a card that you find so appalling, so disgusting that you would not say it aloud, would not require another player to say it aloud, and don't even want to hear it said aloud, you can toss it in the reject pile.

My wife and I later go through the reject pile and when we agree that it will never be funny, it goes into the garbage. It's our copy of the game, we can do as we like.

There are probably people who play a no-holds-barred version of the game, where all cards are in play. But there are some things so sickening that the party stops being fun if somebody says them aloud.

But what is on that list is a matter of, you guessed it, taste. It won't be the same for everybody. And I'm certainly not going to provide you with a list of unspeakable things.

Oh, yes, and then there are the cards where you have no idea what they mean. What makes me more than a little sad is that our children almost always know exactly what they mean. But we have the house rule that if you don't understand a card, don't use it, because you'll have no idea what you're saying.

Do I recommend this game? Absolutely not. Do not go to that website. Do not order that game. Do not gather your friends around you and play it. And if you should happen to see a bunch of black and white cards scattered on the table at our house, it's not what you think.

We were just reading the cards so we'd know just how wicked this world has become. We don't think any of it is funny.

Unless you think it's funny. Then maybe you can come to our next, um, "card-sorting censorship party."

Aw, forget it. We play. We have marathons where we go through every Black Card.

But we will never tell you whom we play it with. We have to protect their reputations, if not our own.

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