Title: Elbert’s Bad Word
Author: Audrey Wood
Illustrator: Audrey and Don Wood
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich
Audience: Ages 4-8 years
Summary: At an elegant garden party young Elbert hears a word that he has never heard before. He reaches out, catches it, and puts it in his back pocket. The word, small, ugly, dark, and hairy, slips from Elbert’s pocket into his mouth and waits. A complicated series of events ends with a croquet mallet landing on Elbert’s toe. Out springs the word, bigger and uglier than before, shocking all the adults at the party. Elbert’s mother washes his mouth out with soap while the word, now small again, snickers. Elbert hurries to the gardener’s cottage for he knows that he needs help. The gardener (also a wizard) sees at once that Elbert has caught a bad word and needs a cure. “Sometimes we need strong words,” he explains, “and here are some good ones.” So he takes a number of sparkling words from a drawer, bakes them into a cake, and gives it to Elbert to eat while the bad word shrivels to the size of a flea. When Elbert returns to the party, a croquet mallet lands on his toe again but this time he has a wonderful series of words to express himself. The guests cheer and the miniscule bad word disappears down a dark hole.
Literary elements at work in the story: It may not be possible to talk about bad words in current culture, but the Woods have nailed the idea with a picture. The word that shocks is really ugly, capable of growing rapidly and dominating a scene. It’s doubtful that any child will recognize the sparkling words that replace the unnamed bad word. “Zounds and Gadzooks” are not common parlance but the idea of fluency when the occasion demands is clear. The garden party pictures are so crowded and busy that they are almost a distraction.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? The setting is clearly upper class-flowers, statuary, opera singers, hors d’oeuvres, butlers, formal clothes. It is perfect for this slight story where a shockable audience is necessary. There is some variety in race but essentially the guests are the same: well dressed, older, apparently wealthy.
Theological Conversation Partners: Elbert is a good read with many possibilities for discussion. Where did the bad word come from in the first place? Almost every child has heard “don’t use that word” without quite understanding. It’s a subject for discussion: what makes a word “bad.” Good taste, good manners, respect are all involved. When God’s name becomes a common expletive, something deeper is at stake. The Bible is very clear: God’s name is to be used with reverence (Deut. 5:11). Words are important and powerful (Matt. 12:36, James 3:8,9; Ps. 52;4,), not to be wasted. Jesus told a story about an evil spirit leaving a person, roaming about, and choosing to return to the dwelling he knew. The house is clean and empty and he invites seven other demons to come live with him. (Luke 11:24-26.) It’s not enough to give up bad words or bad habits: something good must fill the void. The emphasis in this discussion should really be on the sparkling words, with children contributing some of their own.
Faith Talk Questions:
- What makes a word “bad”?
- We don’t know what word Elbert said, but we know what it looked like. Do you think it’s a good picture?
- How did Elbert get the bad word? Is it like catching a cold?
- How did his mother think she could make him stop using the word?
- How did the gardener/wizard help Elbert stop using the word.
- What sparkling words could you use when you are startled or hurt? Have you ever used any of the words that the wizard gave Elbert?
- Jesus said that every word we say is important-words we say when we are happy, angry, surprised; words we say to others. What are some good words you say to others each day?
- Not all people, not even all our friends, think words are as important as Jesus does. Does this make it harder to use “good words”? Psalm 19:14 is a prayer that can help us.
Review prepared by regular contributor Virginia Thomas
Elbert’s Bad Word by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.