Doris Sanford and Graci Evans are a creative team dedicated to producing a book about every possible pediatric trauma. They produced a book to very specifically help kids deal with life in a Japanese POW camp and another for survivors of nude Satanic daycares, as I will bring up every time Doris and Graci are mentioned for the rest of my life.
Today we’re looking at No Longer Afraid, a story about cancer, and I want to remind everyone this book was not a single act of poor judgement. These women dedicated their lives to turning all childhood misery into saccharine weirdness and we’re making fun of them, not, you know, cancer. It’s what academics refer to as “The Reluctantly Acceptable Cancer Joke Author/Reader Relationship.” So let’s cancer up and do this shit, reader!
Like most of their books, No Longer Afraid was named after a turn of phrase so unrelated to the subject no one will ever be able to remember it. It’s safe to assume no one owns more copies of their work than me, and if you held a gun to my head and asked me what a Sanford/Evans CHILDREN OF COURAGE entry was about based on the title, I’d have to guess “wheelchair sadness?” and hope you weren’t a super pedantic quiz murderer.
This book not only seems bad at comforting the children it was written for, it’s absurd to picture No Longer Afraid getting to them. Its intended audience would have to say to a librarian, “The doctors gave me two sad faces and three question marks to live, so I’m in a bit of a hurry. Do you have… oof, what was it called? Some generic platitude. There, There, Kid? No… something like Could Be Worse, I Guess? It’s about terminal pediatric cancer, but they didn’t want to put that in the title, obviously. Oh! It might be Wishes Have Dream Wings? Ha ha I should have really gathered my thoughts before I started asking questions. Look, can you just point me to the section for indelicate storybooks for Beginners and The Traumatized by authors with no child psychology experience? Oh, you don’t have one? It sounds like I’m kidding? Well, suck my dick too, ma’am.”
One hallmark of Doris Sanford’s writing is how she helps the reader understand a child’s suffering through a child’s perspective. I’ll give you an example. When Jaime’s dad explains to her how dire her biopsy results were, she asks, “Daddy, is there a Taco Bell in heaven?” No answer. If another author wrote this you might find meaning in it– an allegory for the darker tragedy of death coming for this child too innocent to dread it and too stupid to have a point of reference outside of tacos. But with Doris, it’s nothing more than a dumb person blurting Taco Bell into the void. She might as well have asked, “Does God give you extra hot sauce if He fucking kills you when you’re five? And wait, who works, cough, at a Taco Bell in heaven? The four-year-olds He kills? Ha ha I should have really gathered my, cough, thoughts before I started asking questions.”
Doris never wrote a book explicitly for children who are stupid as shit, but it’s a trait all of her characters share whether they’re dying of leukemia, the product of divorce, or watching their house burn down. An eight-year-old in a Doris Sanford book might look at a briefcase and ask what happened to that cat and if it knows what to do with this handful of poop.
To make matters worse, the wise adult characters stuck with the job of explaining complicated things like God’s merciless, arbitrary child murder are also stupid. So, for example, a conversation about chemotherapy might have one character repeating, “Huh?” while the other one tells them nonsense like, “Chemotherapy is like weeds! Wait wait, it’s more like Pac-Man, the arcade hit from when you were negative 7, kind of going to war?” If this sounds more like a specific reference than a joke, you’re right!
Jaime seems satisfied with that Pac-Man explanation, or maybe she has been trained to ask “Is this my fault?” every time her mom says forty fucking crazy things in a row. Either way, Doris and Graci are ready to move on to the lighter side of cancer– the way your hair falls out! I wish I was kidding when I said the next twenty pages are about how much fun bald children are for everyone.
If you’d like a look inside the workings of a genius mind, Doris’ comfort to young cancer readers is, “In the children’s cancer unit at the hospital she would have looked strange with hair!” She should have gone all the way with it and had Jaime’s mother point to a new fully-haired patient and say, “Your head looks like a lollipop yanked off of Steven Seagal’s naked back! You shit. You garbage gorilla monster. My daughter is going to rip that louse nest from your bitch ass scalp. Kick this hairy sick kid’s ass, Jaime!”
This decision? To not do that and instead type out the lyrics to an arcane Christian lullaby? Pure cowardice. A brave writer would say something closer to: Anyone finding solace in these transcribed lyrics from Steve Siler’s “Don’t Fear the Night,” Used by permission, should maybe consider how they don’t deserve any kind of comfort? They were given a human brain and heart and squandered them both.
As I promised, the author further explores Jaime’s baldness. Nearly as troubling as Jaime’s health issues is the fact that her mother’s first idea, in this blonde girl’s most vulnerable moment, was gluing an orange clown wig to her hair. Did she walk into the store and say, “Hi, my daughter recently learned what death is and how it’s breathing down her neck. Yeah, I know, right? Anyway, this bald look was popular back in her cancer ward but now I’m thinking maybe something i– oooh, how much is the red afro? That would be hilarious. Do I get a discount if it makes her cry? Ha ha I should really gather my thoughts before I start asking questions.”
You might be wondering how all of Jaime’s friends reacted to her chemotherapy wig. No? You say that’s an unimportant detail of a subject already very, very covered? Well, they loved it. They all passed it around, trying it on. “Oh, give me a hit off your ventilator!” one girl interrupted after seeing an elderly man enjoying the park. “Let me use that plastic leg, fucker!” shouted another at a nearby veteran. “I’m Aqua Fat, the meat-lover’s submarine captain!” laughed a third as she drove an obese woman’s mobility scooter into a lake. “They. Were the same. Kids who stole. My electrolarynx.” croaked a man through a hole in his neck after the police arrived.
It’s still going? Jesus Christ. Wait, is the first bald joke, “Hey, Jaime, I like your chemo cut?” Fucking “Hey, Jaime, I like your chemo cut!?” Doris, you goddamn bitch, maybe don’t quote the poor kid’s least creative bullies in the book about her slow death. Oh, and nice work on Jaime’s brilliant response. “My father is Kojak?” Yeah, that works. Because that show went off the air before her parents met and everyone knows how bald men pass their scalp genes onto their grade school daughters. What I’m trying to say here is if their editor called this book Watch Us Belittle This Dumbshit Sick Kid, they wouldn’t have to change a single other thing.
If you want to write authentic child voices, you need to speak their language. Like how kids say things like, “Get real!” and “Eva Gabor references!” I mean, I get the stakes are low here. It’s only a book for fragile kids coping with mortality, but is this the best Doris could do? She might as well have said, “Do I like my wig? Oy, fellow fourth graders, I like my wig like I like my second and fourth husbands– stuffed in a box and with a good insurance policy! Now, kiddo, can you tell me how much sodium is in these crackers? I left my reading glasses in my other Bea Arthur windbreaker and if I have too much salt my joints creak like the Lusitania! I… m-mean I’m ten! Pac-Man sure is turbo bad, maximum homeboys!”
And not to pile on the criticism, but I think we can all agree that when everyone you know has tried on your wig and local birds have littered your life with multiple nests made from the remains of your real hair, we have fully explored every aspect of your baldness journey. It might be time to shut the fuck up about how delightfully shiny this kid’s head is, Doris. Let’s move on to the Make-A-Wish part, the other thing Doris and Graci know about this terribl(y fun!) disease.
Jaime likes horses, which seems normal for a young girl. In fact, I’d argue “cancer girl loses hair and asks Make-A-Wish for a horse” is suspiciously normal– like the very first idea for a cancer storybook plot by an unremarkable writer. And when Jaime is moved to tears by everyone’s support, a strange horse judge says, “I think your happiness is leaking out of your eyes. (It was!)” Jesus Christ. What? This whole thing is such an ordinary idea executed by people with good intentions, but Doris and Graci are just incapable of not making things weird. They are somehow simultaneously the pioneers, the cliché hacks, and the Turkish knockoffs of sadness picture books.
Doris waits until the second-to-last page to deliver No Longer Afraid’s titular line: “She was no longer afraid of the dark.” She set this powerful moment up masterfully, by never once mentioning the main character being afraid of the dark. This might as well have said, “Jaime was one step closer to her goal of being a celebrity cookie chef, a hobby of hers we edited out to make room for more bald jokes, here’s a horse shoe.”
“Graci, this book has been a wonderful journey. We gave a kid every kind of cancer, explained it perfectly with Pac-Man kind of going to war, and she met a horse once. I don’t have an ending, so let’s add 17 pages of kids mocking her baldness? She’s probably dead by now, but let’s not end it on a grave. Can you draw, like, a horse restraint? Then it’s another one in the bag! Let me know if you have any ideas for the next book. I’m thinking WATCHING YOUR UNEMPLOYED SINGLE MOM COMMIT SUICIDE?”
Possibly related: tune in in two weeks for Seanbaby’s next Upsetting Day…
This article was brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme, yossarian: The Morgan Horse Restraint dream we never dared to speak aloud, for fear it would not come true.