Yesterday, I told my six year old that I hadn’t recommended a book on my blog in a while and I told her that I wanted her to pick the next book I’d write about. She ran over to her bookshelf and, after a few moments of internal debate, she walked back and handed me The Gym Teacher From the Black Lagoon.
It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting (or hoping for), but a promise is a promise.
Let me put this out there right upfront – My kid LOVES Mike Thaler’s Black Lagoon series. LOVES it. She’s loved it since she was three. And I know many other kids who feel the same way. My feelings about the series, however, are more complicated.
It’s not that I think Mike Thaler’s Black Lagoon books are bad books. They’re not. I like them. I particularly like Jared Lee’s illustrations, which are entertaining and goofy and always remind me of a fun hybrid of Sandra Boynton and Laura Cornell.
They’re lightweight, durable, inexpensive, and, with the exception of early Berenstain Bears titles, they’re normally the highest quality books on those spinning wire racks at bookstores that are normally filled with crappy Barbie titles and uninspired Disney tie-ins. Black Lagoon books are perfect for light reading, car trips, or excursions to a restaurant.
BUT, all that said, my big complaint about the Black Lagoon books is that they are incredibly, incredibly REPETITIVE, a trait that can antagonize parents, while, at the same time, delighting kids, apparently. If you’ve read one Black Lagoon book, you’ve almost literally read them all.
Here’s the general Black Lagoon formula (which, again, kids freakin’ love):
There’s a kid named Hubie (love the old-timey name).
He’s heard that he’s getting a new teacher, principal, school nurse, bus driver, etc, etc.
He’s heard this new person is HORRIBLE.
Hubie recounts all of the cautionary tales he’s heard about the person, stories derived from a kid’s humorous misunderstandings about the world around him. For example, he’s heard his gym teacher makes you jump over a real “horse” (instead of a gymnastics horse). His new teacher, Miss Green, is supposed to really be “green” (a big lizard lady). And his new computer teacher “bites” (rather than “bytes”). You can see where this is going.
Hubie gets all nervous while he tells himself tall tales and then…
The new person enters, turns out to be perfectly normal and nice, and Hubie is relieved. End scene.
There are nineteen or so Black Lagoon picture books and almost every single one of them follows that EXACT formula. There’s a riddle book and some Black Lagoon beginner chapter books (that my daughter also enjoys) that vary up the template a bit, but, as a parent, reading a Black Lagoon book feels a lot like going to a decent fast-food restaurant. You know exactly what you’re going to get every single time.
And there are times when that’s exactly what you and/or your kid is looking for, and there are times when that kind of strict adherence to a set formula will drive you absolutely nuts and make you BEG your daughter to please, PLEASE pick another book for bedtime. There are nights where you can only visit the Black Lagoon so often.
They’re definitely well-intentioned books, structured around showing a kid that his fears about the outside world are usually unwarranted, but do you really need nineteen variations on the EXACT same message?
My negativity aside, it has to be said that Thaler does have a nice grasp of how kids of a certain age perceive the world. Hubie is a kid with an extremely deficient supply of context and watching him try to invent definitions for concepts that haven’t been explained to him can be a fun exercise.
Quick related side story: My daughter came home from first grade one day, talking about how one of her classmates had “put the middle finger” on another classmate. When I asked her what she meant by “PUT” – and after assuring her she wouldn’t get in trouble if she showed me – my kid extended her middle finger and quickly wiped it on my arm, as if she was passing me cooties or the Cheese Touch (for those familiar with Jeff Kinney’s Diary of Wimpy Kid). THAT is what her class thought it meant when someone “gave you the middle finger.”
Thaler’s Black Lagoon books try to tap into that same kind of kid-skewed worldview, which, if done well, can be really funny. My issue with the Black Lagoon series is that it adopts that exact same worldview again and again and again. With very little variation. And, often times, via misunderstandings and situations that feel extremely contrived or, at the very least, like joke-telling softballs. When Hubie tells us that his new gym teacher makes you “lift his pickup truck over your head before the semester ends. I guess that’s why they call it a ‘pickup’ truck”…your first thoughts aren’t going to be “This is comedy gold!” You’re going to smile and nod, the same way you do when one of your kid’s classmates tells you a half-remembered knock-knock joke, and secretly think to yourself, “Man, Mo Willems and Lane Smith books are HILARIOUS. Legitimately hilarious.”
BUT, like I said, my daughter loves these books, even though I thought she would’ve outgrown them by now. They’ve been in print for twenty years, they’ve sold millions of copies, and they’re a staple at any Scholastic Book Fair. Mike Thaler is OBVIOUSLY doing something right. So, please, take my criticisms with a grain of salt. Kids truly seem to enjoy the Black Lagoon books and having some in your home library is probably a good idea. But you don’t need more than one or two. After you’ve heard one of Hubie’s tall tales, trust me, the rest are pretty predictable.
THE DETAILS ON THE GYM TEACHER FROM THE BLACK LAGOON:
AGE RANGE: The stated age range is 4 to 8. Kids younger than four can definitely enjoy them (unless they get scared by pictures of cartoon monsters), but eight might be a little old for the Black Lagoon picture books.
PAGE COUNT: 32 pages
RELATED WEB SITES: There’s a Black Lagoon section on Mike Thaler’s official homepage, but it doesn’t look like it’s been updated in a while. You can also find info on the Black Lagoon series on the Scholastic website here.
BUY IT, BORROW IT, OR FORGET IT?: These are very cheap books (normally $3.99), so buying one sight-unseen isn’t much of a risk/investment. But, if you can, try some out at the library beforehand and see if the Black Lagoon is somewhere your kid cares to visit first.
IF YOU LIKED THE GYM TEACHER FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:
- Amelia Bedelia by Peggy Parish – Amelia Bedelia is the reigning godmother of “misunderstanding” humor and, to be frank, she’s a much funnier children’s literature icon than Hubie could ever hope to be. The story of an easily-confused maid who, apparently, has no idea what any idiom means, Amelia Bedelia remains a favorite in our house, even if many of Parish’s references – like “trim the meat” or “draw the drapes” – are occasionally obscure or dated enough to go over my daughter’s head. There are a ton of Bedelia books and spin-offs out there, but the original titles written by Peggy Parish are the warmest and funniest and most worth your attention.
- Miss Nelson Is Missing! by Harry Allard and James Marshall – If you want your kid to read a legitimately funny series about kids being confused at school, point them towards Harry Allard and James Marshall’s Miss Nelson series. In Miss Nelson Is Missing!, a class of horrible children learn to appreciate their sweet teacher after she takes an unexplained leave of absence and is replaced by the repellent and mean Miss Viola Swamp. As the kids painfully realize how good they had it, your kid will crack themselves up as they slowly begin to realize who Miss Swamp really is. Allard and Marshall are also the demented minds behind The Stupids series – another gem of misunderstanding humor, provided that you’re fine with letting your kid hear the word “stupid” used over and over again. (I’m generally OK with it, though I know some parents regard “stupid” as a fairly strong insult.)