Did you ever suddenly remember a book you read long ago and have a sudden, irrepressible need to read it again? I have that feeling fairly often, though sometimes I don’t remember the title of the book or its author. Other times it is simply out of print. That was the case this time, when I suddenly remember The Big Joke Game, a lesser known book by Scott Corbett, a prolific writer of middle-grade humor when I was a kid. Many of them were a series that started with The Lemonade Trick and continued through innumerable more The _____ Trick titles where the science whiz Kerby cooks up things with his chemistry trick to “solve” his problems (of course things always got out of hand). (One of the reasons these books might have gone out of print is that they encourage kids to throw a bunch of chemicals together and hope they had a magic potion for something–I know I did.)
Anyway… my favorite of his books was The Big Joke Game, which involves a kid named Ozzie who is always cracking jokes and loves games and after a serious fall has a crazy dream where he’s in Limbo playing a giant board game where everything is a joke and you have to crack jokes and tell limericks to win, except sometimes telling jokes gets you in deep trouble. There’s a Trojan Horse in it and a devil and lots of wordplay. It’s easy to compare to The Phantom Tollbooth, which I remember thinking at the time was not as good as The Big Joke Game.
I was able to procure the only copy in the Hennepin County Library system after a long wait. Have I ever mentioned that I love getting books that still have the library check-out card glued to the back cover? This one does. No card, alas — I loved, as a child, being able to see the names and dates due from the book’s past.
Whenever I read a middle-grade book from my childhood I remember how tight and brief they are. This is probably less than 20,000 words long. There aren’t many people writing books like that anymore: Dan Gutman, Andrew Clements, and Tom Angleberger come to mind, but most middle grade books (like mine) are much longer, and maybe much longer than they need to be. I blame Harry Potter.
Anyway. The jokes and riddles and limericks were as I remembered, but I was struck at how didactic the book is. The boy learns a valuable lesson about manners. Kids still learn lessons, in books, but they are usually bigger lessons. This one would be called preachy now. It’s about learning when it is appropriate and not appropriate to make jokes. I found the small didactic quality kind of refreshing. How often do books get away with such small stakes, any more?
Alas, I read the book several times and it didn’t do me any good.