Doris Sanford and Graci Evans create illustrated guides to childhood problems, and no one has ever done it worse. They solve abuse with insanity and foster care with racism. They solve divorce with Satan and AIDS with strangling. And in 1990, these passionate and dog-brained ladies published a series of four books called ONCE I WAS A ________… and You’ll Never Guess What Happened.
We’re going to start with ONCE I WAS A BULLY… because it’s the only one I have with all the accessories. Each book originally came with a paper doll of the main character you could slide into little slots in a way the most generous five-year-old would call “pointless.” I’m not even sure what they were going for. A weird boy peeking through an unrelated hole in the universe? It’s nonsense. It’s something an AI would generate if you asked it to write your seminary school paper. Anyway, this paper doll is a dick and he picks on a boy named Jason.
Honestly, Jason seems fine. “Fuck you and fuck this,” he says to our bully, and that’s it for the bullying part of the book. I want to be clear on this: after one page we are done with the exposition, character development, and plot. It’s time to learn our lesson.
The very next page, the bully goes to a monster movie and dissociates in fear. It has nothing to do with Jason because Doris and Graci don’t think like normal children’s book authors. They think more like a salmon getting slapped out of the air by a grizzly bear. If you put a human head in a dryer and asked it how to solve friendship, it would scream a Doris Sanford book. Like how our bully now imagines he is kayaking in a sewer and then gets swallowed by a shark.
What does this have to do with bullying or bullying consequences? Nothing. This is the world’s worst dad shrugging his way through a bedtime story. The shark spits him up in, fuck who cares… Japan, I guess?
The bully takes in a sumo match which Doris explains is sort of like a place where fat guys get together to make fun of girl haircuts. They could have called this “I’m Just Todd, And This is Just Some Dumb Dream I Had… A Just Nothing Book For Dull Idiots” and it would have been fine. But they sold this like it would teach us something. In fact, the back of the book specifically states how critical it is to not fail at this task they are carelessly fucking up.
This was supposed to teach children to treat others with respect? How? The boy went straight from bullying to the movies to a dreamscape of adventure. He is one page away from having toys magically come to life.
I wasn’t kidding. Our hero is learning his lesson by meeting a group of rad dinosaurs and hot ladies. Things could not be going better for him. If I know anything about bully dreams, and I think I do, things are about to get steamy.
That’s not what I meant, but okay. This is such a cute encapsulation of the broken wrongness of Doris Sanford and Graci Evans. Like, what is this? Forget how far we are from the stated goal of the book. This is a slot for a paper doll to make it look like he’s standing in his own back pocket while a dinosaur head is down his pants. This is how a ’90s movie would CGI a black hole appearing in a child’s brain– the final violent thoughts of Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Boy.
“So then, uh, robots attack… nutcrackers,” adds the very good writer looking around her apartment. If we’re being charitable I think our bully is supposed to be learning about the nature of fear, possibly to understand what it would have been like if he had frightened the child who dismissed him on page one. It’s a stretch, but the alternative –these crafty ladies are fucking stupid– is too predictable to consider.
As quickly and as pointlessly as it started, the adventure ends. Whew! Our bully almost had to see a nutcracker get torn apart by robots during a fun hallucination at the movies. Those couldn’t have been the stakes, yet they were. It’s the first book written entirely during a 20 minute electrocution and drawn during a 70 year virginity.
What? That’s it? Nothing here ever got related to a second thing. Are there even words to help understand what has been done here? This is like teaching children politeness by awarding a historic pizza “Best Fish.” The book failed every step of the way here and then blew it on the final lesson. Because, one, being scared is clearly super fun. And two, look at Jason. He’s got his own clothing line. Jason doesn’t give a fuck about you. Why would he? It seems outrageous I need to say this, Doris Sanford, but thinking about random things while watching a movie by yourself isn’t an apology. If a loaf of bread grew this, you’d say “wow, this mold almost looks like a story.”
Let’s see if they do better with the next one.
ONCE I TOLD A LIE… and You’ll Never Guess What Happened originally came with a paper doll of a little blonde liar, but someone in Mrs. McKinnon’s class tore her off and lost her. Again, every page has a hole for no coherent reason. Again, it’s like the dumbest caveman tried to invent a pop-up book. Again, it’s because the only real thing this series has to teach us is how books cannot defend against a chisel attack.
After an undisclosed lie, a daughter is sent to her room. To represent her, I’m using the bully from the last book– the grouchy bastard who learned nothing. This insufferable little shit.
The liar immediately jumps out the window…
… and goes on a wild adventure around the world. She goes to many disconnected places, learning nothing and doing less. Sometimes it’s fine. Other times it’s only okay. The liar ends up in a “deep cave,” “Africa,” and “Iowa.” She starts to have fun when she meets some friendly native North Polians because Doris is an elderly white woman in 1990…
… but gets mistaken for a small fish in Miami because most of Doris’s skull was hollowed out by parasites in 1989.
In a weird move for a little girl learning the dangers of lying, she takes thirty pounds of snacks up to the counter and tells the cashier, “I’m not paying for any of this.”
She’s arrested, and you can see this isn’t a good story. It’s a series of bland “and thens” ad-libbed by an amateur encyclopedia owner. I don’t care, and who would? It’d be like criticizing a cow for digesting grass in the wrong stomach compartment. Abomasum? Ha, nice fucking choice, cow. No, what’s frustrating to me is how much it absolutely isn’t a lesson about lying. It’s a story about an aimless girl wandering honestly, and yet here is the lesson it was leading to:
She’s decided to NEVER, NEVER, NEVER lie again? Why? She took a roadtrip to a failed candy negotiation, and it was either a magical adventure or an attic hallucination. None of it taught anyone anything. I’d say this was like teaching someone the power of honesty by blurting out “I went to Iowa before getting arrested for ice cream,” but that’s literally what happened here. That’s what we just read.
So, gasp, it was all a trick? The fictional child didn’t travel around the world and spend a weekend at the north pole in an afternoon? She was a liar, here are some more of her lies, the end? But wait, if none of it happened, why Iowa? Less importantly, why any of it? This is, with scientific precision, the least a book could teach you about the consequences of lying. If you think it’s easy to make a children’s book, ONCE I TOLD A LIE… and You’ll Never Guess What Happened will make you say, “My God, what else am I wrong about.” Reading it is like watching someone get out of a cab with most of a dog and whispering, “I trained this horse to count,” only for kids.
Our next book is called ONCE I WAS OBNOXIOUS… and You’ll Never Guess What Happened. It was supposed to come with an Asian school girl paper doll, but her pouch has long since been torn off. She was gone decades ago. We all know the terrible world we live in. No one has ever said, “This detachable Asian school girl paper doll will certainly be safe here: on this public library book.” So we’re going to have to use the bully prick again.
The obnoxious girl and her friend, Millicent Ann Louise, write mean notes like, and I quote, “ROTTEN ROBERT, I HATE YOU!” and “HA HA HA HA HA ON YOU.” She thinks these are devastating, so like the bully, our hero might be overestimating the effect of her cruelty. Seriously, obnoxious girl, the recipient of “HA HA HA HA HA ON YOU,” doesn’t need you to atone. There’s no victim here. “Rotten” Robert sees this like a chimpanzee accidentally giving him the middle finger.
Like the pattern we’ve established, we learn about the hero’s personality disorder and immediately follow them on some imaginary journey. But this time it’s at least related to the problem because she and Millicent travel around the world being very obnoxious. It’s a book about two girls being insufferable dicks in different locations, and it’s the clearest artistic vision Doris and Graci have had in years.
They go to the moon and Egypt, where the author forgets to make them obnoxious, but they make up for it by visiting the Great Wall of China and spitting on the locals. Next they take a caravan to the zoo, partly because nothing here means anything, partly because these worldly authors thought Chinese passenger vehicles were still donkeys in 1990.
At the zoo, the girls pelt a hippo with rocks until it agrees to take them to a sunken treasure boat. I’d argue this did not help them learn why being obnoxious is bad. They cut in line to get on a hang-glider and take it to the Natural History Museum where they really raise the stakes:
“What are the statues at the entrance to the Natural History Museum? Gerbils?” asked illustrator Graci. And writer Doris replied the same way she always did: “I tried to swallow a hot dog, and set the hospital record for longest time spent legally dead!”
The two girls finally go too far when they touch a “DO NOT TOUCH” sign. Not the thing it was telling viewers not to touch, but the sign itself. We can’t be sure if this is a cute joke or another fundamental chunk of brain missing from the author.
They are sentenced to four years of solitary confinement with a number of strange details written by a person trying to be silly and, like in all their other efforts, failing.
Because of their good behavior, the girls get to finish their prison time with adult criminals, singing in the choir and making license plates. It’s so goddamn weird. They’re locked up in prison for a third of this book. I guess the judge knew he couldn’t get a hippo stoning or China spitting conviction, so he came down on the girls hard for the sign touching charges.
I can’t imagine anyone or anything improving from any of this, but at least something bad is happening to shitheads. I’m American enough to call that a win for the justice system. This is a pretty decent effort, Doris and Graci! You even remembered to include a real moral:
“Hi, Robert. It’s been… wow, five years since I wrote HA HA HA HA HA ON YOU. Well, I’m out and I’ve had time to refl– what do you mean, who is this? This is Millicent Ann Louise, Snitch Killer of Cell Block D! I tormented you all through third gra– he hung up.”
So okay, we’ve now read about bullying, lying, and obnoxiousness with Doris and Graci almost making a case against the last one. But moral relativists could argue those concepts are too abstract to solve. Let’s see if Doris and Graci can teach children about something more objectively wrong. Let’s see how they handle stealing.
In a storytelling choice I personally wouldn’t have made, the star of ONCE I WAS A THIEF… and You’ll Never Guess What Happened is a young Latino immigrant. But this book has ironically been stripped of its thief doll, so we’ll have to use the bully again. The little paper son of a bitch.
The thief took $1.74 and some snail remains from Robert. I don’t know if all children in this universe choose Robert as their victim or if Doris is using her art to work through some things involving a treacherous Robert in her own life. Speaking of the author, can you see the mistake she made here? That’s right! In the very same paragraph we learn of the crime, we also see the solution and the aftermath. Doris accidentally finished the story on the first page! Whoops!
So with nothing left to do, the hero takes a nap.
It goes about as disastrously as a nap can go.
“What’s the deal with hospital food, am I right? Could there be a more wild assortment of various foods?” jokes Doris. “We won’t know the full extent of the brain damage until we get all the hot dog out of her lungs,” say her nearby doctors.
After stealing fourteen lunches from his nurses, the boy escapes to Brazil where Doris and Graci agree they speak Spanish. And the birds there can tell what he’s done. “Señor Thief! Señor Thief!” the parrots squawk, in perfect Spanish, the native tongue of Brazil. It’s like the Tell Tale Heart only with higher stakes.
He stays one step ahead of the police by fleeing to the sky, Australia, and Mayan Indian ruins before ending up in a Korean sweatshop. He works there for three weeks, but our hero, further referred to as Señor Thief, can’t resist stealing a paw squeaker from the assembly line. You know what happens next.
That’s right. Thirty two fucking years of hard labor filling tear buckets at a royal llama farm.
Señor Thief’s father is the king, and he’s here to see if the boy who learned his lesson on page one learned it again after all this nonsense bullshit.
Señor Thief’s dad, THE KING, comes up with precisely the same solution as when Señor Thief was awake. Yeah, we know, book. Give the stolen things back and apologize. Am I fucking crazy? You said it twenty pages ago. I guess the book’s lesson is yada yada, sure, don’t steal, but if you do you need to relive a more surreal version of the crime while you’re asleep. It’s the only way to free yourself from the guilt. Speaking of free…
“Oh fuck yeah,” is what Graci Evans says when you ask her if she can draw “FREE!”
“We forgive you,” shouts everyone! From the hungry, peach-headed nurses here in America to the owners of squeakless teddy bears deep in the mysterious Orient, all the lives shattered by Señor Thief are whole again. I can’t imagine a more wonderful ending. Stealing solved, five stars.
This article was brought to you by our fine sponsor and Hot Dog Supreme: Joseph Searles, who once talked during a movie and went on a magical journey where he romanced a tiger and then died in prison.