- Kirsten Bell
What snot sub-genres tell us about children's books
After giving you a short break, we’re back on snot again. I promise this is the last piece! (Actually, that’s a blatant lie; I can make no such promise.) To explain my fixation, when I was doing research for 'The snot that we forgot' (see Part I and Part II), I was gobsmacked by the sheer volume of children’s books on snot. As I was scrolling through pages of search results on Amazon, it quickly became evident that snot books fall into distinct sub-genres – and that these sub-genres probably tell us something about children’s books more broadly as both cultural artefacts and instruments of social conditioning. So without further ado, I present for you a list of the primary themes in children's books as read through the genre of snot stories.
1. Amazing facts!
Probably the largest sub-field in the snot genre, these books fall in the ‘edutainment’ category and aim to introduce kids to science in an engaging way. Notably, these books seem to be aimed at all age levels, from toddlers through to teens.1
Some of these books focus specifically on snot – like The Secret Life of Boogers: All the Amazing Facts that Make Your Snot Spectacular. Others use snot as a means of introducing the human body more generally. (Did you know that ‘snot “traps” viruses and bacteria in its sticky web and prevents them from entering our system’? This book is full of such gems.) Others use snot as a means of introducing the human body more generally.
Many of the latter books are part of series that take, in turn, snot, farts, burps, and everything ostensibly ‘gross’ that obsesses children and might get them interested in science. For example, Why is Snot Sticky? is part of the ‘Big Ideas’ series, which includes Why don’t Astronauts Burp? and What Makes You Hiccup? Likewise, Why is Snot Green? is part of a Science Museum series that includes titles like Will Farts Destroy the Planet? and Stuff that Scares Your Pants Off!
2. Sermons disguised as stories
This sub-genre competes with ‘Amazing Facts!’ in terms of the sheer volume of stories that fall into the category. These are basically morality tales that aim to inculcate social and moral values into children about how they should engage with their snot. In effect, these are the contemporary version of the etiquette books Elias drew upon in The Civilizing Process.
In some cases, the sermonising is explicit – the tagline for The Snot that He Forgot is ‘Follow Stanley’s mishaps as he refuses to wipe his snotty nose’. Likewise, The Snot Monster aims to ‘inspire the children in your life to get rid of their boogers in a socially acceptable manner’. However, my suspicion is that kids wise up quickly to the sermon-as-story, recognising that what parents like about such books is different from what they like about them. To quote one precocious six-year-old’s review of The Snot that He Forgot,
‘I think the snot that he forgot was really good and fabulious because there is cake in there and children love cake.2 And also you would like it parents because it teachers children to wipe the nose to get the snot away and not catch the glue spray!!!’
In other cases, the moral message is more subtle – as in Robo-Snot. With the tagline ‘An icky, sticky nose-picky adventure’, this is a book that sounds like it positively revels in snot – an impression stoked by the cover illustration of a happy robot wallowing in the stuff. But it’s basically about a robot whose snot-hoarding ways lead first to fame, and then to a flu outbreak.3 To quote from one father’s review, ‘the fame slips quickly away and Little Robot ends up alone, afraid and trapped in a flood of his own snot!’ That said, the moral message may have been too subtle because his child’s verdict was ‘I liked it because there are robots and it was nice and a bit disgusting’.
Likewise, The Booger Bandit starts out promisingly enough. Its opening line is, ‘I love picking boogers, it’s true / But everyone does it, don’t you?’ (Yes, Booger Bandit, I do.) But things take a moral turn as the story progresses. According to the book’s summary, ‘after all the booger-sticking fun the Bandit finally discovers the true meaning of having manners’.
Even in Snot Chocolate: And Other Funny Stories, the titular story ends up being about a kid who ‘struggles to save the career and reputation of a parent afflicted with chronic unconscious nose-picking’. As I discussed in The snot that we forgot: Part II, this is a common motif in discussions of nose picking, although a surprisingly dark theme for a book called Snot Chocolate!
3. The bait and switch
This is a smaller sub-genre that does not focus on snot per se, but uses children’s love of the green stuff as a way of seducing them into reading books about other things. An example of this sub-genre is Captain Snot: The Pirate Scared of Water, whose name seems to have been chosen primarily based on what it rhymes with (‘The bravest pirate, Captain Snot / Except on water, which was a lot’). Another is The Snots series – about a family of snots who live up a boy’s nose and go on various fun adventures, thereby demonstrating the power of family and friendship (I’m surmising here, based on the fact that it’s one of Book Authority’s 100 Best Friendship Books of all time).
The worst offender in this category is unquestionably SNOT. Despite the cartoonish green slime dribbling down the front cover, ‘snot’ is an acronym for ‘Short Nuggets Of Truth’. According to the description, one of the topics discussed is ‘why we should keep our bodies healthy’, so I assume snot is mentioned in passing, but the book is mostly about repenting your sins. That’s right, folks; this baby is a ‘Year-Long Christian Devotional for Kids’ disguised as a book about snot.
4. Aesthetic appreciations
Definitely the smallest sub-genre, these are books that take snot on its own terms as an object of aesthetic appreciation. Consisting of colouring books, poems, and ‘Where’s-Waldo’-style Spot the Snot, they have no educational intent, and, more importantly, no judgement. Snot is treated merely something kids dig and find funny. For example, The Snot Book by Staffan Gnosspelius primarily contains illustrations of snot along with some accompanying text. To quote one reviewer, ‘The gloriousness of snot is so brilliantly described through beautiful snotty imagery and witty text’.4
Sample pages from The Snot Book (source)
With little but anthropological intuition5 to back me up, my suspicion is that these snot sub-genres map pretty closely onto the core themes in children’s books more broadly. After all, literature aimed specifically at children had an instructional purpose from the outset, aiming to inculcate educational and moral values, even when (actually, especially when) it appeared to be pure entertainment. According the literary scholar Kimberly Reynolds, children’s book writers have always understood the need to ‘use cobwebs to catch flies’, and it’s clear that snot stories have proved a particularly seductive method of fly catching.
In effect, then, snot stories mostly function like snot itself: both are ‘sticky webs’ that trap what is unclean or contaminated (bacteria in one case, children’s egocentric and unenculturated minds in the other) and cleanse systems. So if you want to understand children’s books, it turns out that all you really have to understand is, well, snot, which is not just a primary player in stories aimed at kids but a surprisingly apt metaphor for the entire genre itself!
1 That said, this isn’t a genre restricted to kids, either. Australians of a certain age will remember Karl Kruszelnicki, a.k.a. ‘Dr Karl’, a former physician who found fame from the 1990s as a science communicator with tomes like Bumbreath, Botox and Bubbles and other Fully Sick Science Moments.
2 It is impossible to read this statement without immediately thinking of Little Britain.
3 A lot of these books seem to go dark fast.
4 Naturally, I have now purchased a copy of this book. I have high hopes that it will surpass the books that currently score highest on my ‘toilet-friendly reads’ criterion: Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies (‘A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears…’), Tim Burton’s The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, and a truly odd book called Christopher Cricket on Cats. Interestingly, all are illustrated books ostensibly aimed at children that fall into the ‘aesthetic appreciations’ category (of untimely deaths, outcasts and cats respectively).
5 Apparently, it’s a thing – at least according to all the notebooks and mugs proclaiming our unique intelligence and powers of deduction.