For the Word-Obsessed

There's a particular type of reader, the one who finds words endlessly interested. Not just what the words say; in fact, for these people the story and its action pale next to the words themselves. For them, a pun is as engaging as plot. They can somehow stop themselves in the moment of the word before moving through it, to take time there and see the word—its sound, its form, everything about it.

I am not one of those kinds of readers.

But I seem to have given birth to one (how does that happen?), and it's been amazing to watch her navigate her way through books. Readers like this, I think, are the ones who end up being poets. Or punsters. Or worse! But it's kind of a thrill to watch them go through a book, seeing it in an entirely different way from how I read it, in which the words disappear and I am in the world, with nothing separating me from it.

No doubt you know some readers like this. If so, here are some books for them.

For the tiny (and yes, there are tiny poets):


It should come as no great surprise that this is written, in fact, by a poet. A big-time poet no less. It's really great, sharp and silly and funny.

What if there were no letter A?
Cows would eat HY instead of HAY.
What's HY? It's an unheard-off diet,
And cows are happy not to try it.

I cannot fully express the hilarity with which this was greeted when we read it to a certain 4-year-old person. Over. And over. And OVER. But it's not one you really mind rereading.

Next step up? This:

Even now, a certain person will come and look over my shoulder as I am typing this, and see Runny Babbit and say, "Hey! That's funny." And yes, yikes, it's written by yet another poet (what is it with you poets?), which makes all too much sense (can you tell that I fear having someone in this house decide they want to be a poet?).

And then your friendly small word person wants more. And you should read this to them:


For heaven's sake, it's got a Todal! It's sort of an older, longer version of The Disappearing Alphabet focused only on O. And there was, indeed, great hilarity around the dinner table when we tried out each other's names in this circumstance. But a hint for the clean-mouthed: don't try to say your friend's name if your friend is named Hanna Fox. Just fyi.

And then we get to the crown jewel of silly word-based fun, the book that is oh so beloved in our house that even when we run into a copy of it in a store, it elicits a shriek, "Look! There it is!"


This book is loved. LOVED. A sort of silly, punning, absurdist murder mystery whose whole existence will hurtle some of us back to the 1970s when everyone had mustaches and absurdity was somehow more culturally prevalent. And we will be happy there.

And from there, to where? I don't know. Certainly Monty Python scripts. My husband thinks Pynchon is somehow in this lineage. Or is it fantasy? I have no idea. But these excellent books—think of them as a gift from our house to yours. Because I know that I can't be the only one who has pleasant silly word-obsessed incipient poet in the house. Right?

14 thoughts on “For the Word-Obsessed

  1. When she’s a little older, Ella Minnow Pea! A book about an island where they start outlawing different letters. It’s an epistolary novel, so it’s all written in letters back and forth between the characters, who have to start cutting different letters of the alphabet out of their writing.
    Written for adults, but off the top of my head I can’t remember anything inappropriate for, say, a twelve year old. Maybe preview it?


  2. Ah, the epistolary novel, perfect food for the word-obsessed reader. One weird one is Letters from Camp, which both my daughters went inexplicably wild for. Loved it. It reminded me of Payday (the old board game?).
    And thank you for the Ella Minnow Pea reference, luckily enough I no longer preview anything the (soon-to-be) 12-year-old reads. But the perfect one I’m thinking of, though I haven’t read it? A Void.


  3. For the older set, I’m thinking this tradition would definitely continue with folks like Wodehouse or Jasper Fforde. And yes, it definitely includes fantasy from folks like Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman (I’m thinking Good Omens here- – not much of his other stuff…)
    My list is decidedly British but that seems fitting for this type of humor, hmmm?


  4. I was going to say Phantom Tollbooth too! And we’re punning word dorks around here, so I’ve got to take notes for Moochie. I’m always pulling that Spoonerism nonsense on her. (For crap’s sake, buy that kid a Gameboy.)


  5. We have a bit of that in our family and loved all the books that you mentioned except for the last — I’ve never heard of it and am so excited to try it out!
    Thanks for a wonderful post —


  6. One of my other all-time favorites is Ounce, Dice, Trice by Alistair Reid. This, I imagine, is one of the books that inspired Norton Juster.


  7. Yes, C D B is amazing, but weirdly upsetting for those who are learning to read, and might be less word-ish. Sort of blew someone’s mind here when we tried it, it’s like the un-reading book. Though we do love it.


  8. I second (third?) Phantom Tollbooth, for the adult word people, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and A.S. Byatt’s Possession. There is a short story where someone steals all the e’s from a printing press. It’s written for adults but kids could surely enjoy it (I think I read it in middle school) however, I cannot for the life of me remember what it is called.
    Maybe The View From Saturday? I’d also suggest A Mango Shaped Space, which is actually about a girl with synesthesia who therefore sees colors when looking at letters and numbers or hearing sounds. It’s not really in the same vein as the others, but it’s a wonderful book about how people perceive the building blocks of our world.


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