Remember for a moment the days of your youth. Before you were a reader of Serious Literature. Before you cared about the big questions and thematic duality, Pynchon's latest or the spectacular weirdness of China Mieville. Bring to mind a simpler time when books existed either as pure, picture-heavy entertainment or (depending on your age) as a vehicle for Dick and Jane to teach you about manners or Ninja Turtles to school you on good oral hygiene.
When we were young, curious monkeys got to go to space and talking bears taught us about friendship and the clothing-optional lifestyle. And everything was good and joyful because if a pantsless bear with a worrying honey dependency could solve all his problems within the space of a dozen pages, well then, really, how hard could life really be?
The new series of Fireside Grown-Up Guides (an American version of the best-selling U.K. series, Ladybird Books For Grown-Ups) makes the case that maybe we should have never stopped taking our life lessons in simple, brightly-colored, large-print format. That maybe complex, grown-up concerns like hangovers, child-rearing, gender roles and living mindfully might best be confronted and understood by plain and direct statements:
Mindfulness is the skill of thinking you are doing something when you are doing nothing. One of the good things about mindfulness is that you get to do a lot of sitting down. Sitting down is good for the mind because so much positive energy is stored in the lap.
Or this, from the Fireside Grown-Up Guide To The Husband:
The husband has a very big memory. He can remember football scores, all his old car license plate numbers, and most of Caddyshack. But he cannot remember what his wife asked him to bring back from the store. This is because his brain is full up, not because he was not listening.
The Guide to the Hangover focuses primarily on scientifically proven facts about hangovers, like "Consuming alcohol lowers the body's reserves of vital elements such as iron, potassium, water and bacon. Every unit of alcohol kills the equivalent of two inches of bacon which must be replaced the next morning." And then throws in some observational truths to balance things out:
Friday night work drinks went on longer than expected. Ron has a head like a smelting plant full of howler monkeys on ephedrine. Ron is glad Saturday mornings require little more than the vocabulary, reasoning and motor skills of a seven-year-old. Ron is happy on the floor. Later, he will try to buy a head of garlic at a self-service checkout and will burst into tears.
This is accompanied by a lovely, Dick-and-Jane-style illustration of an idyllic suburban family scene with dad on the floor playing cars with his son — wisdom on one side, art on the other. And each book in the series (four now, more promised) proceeds in this fashion.
They're joke books, essentially (written by comedy writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris) — short and dark and dry and easily digestible, with a surprising number of laughs per slim volume. Of the four, the guide to Mindfulness was my favorite because it perfectly skewers the entitled hippie nonsense of it all (favorite line: "Sophie is concentrating on her breath. It smells of Funyuns. She says she has light for breakfast, air for lunch and love for supper, but Sophie has also secretly had some Funyuns."), and The Mom came off as the least funny, though it does have a lovely undercurrent of sadness. My favorite page? A painting of a sixties mom, oddly dressed in go-go boots and a fur-lined mini-dress, obviously sitting down to a job interview, which tells this little story:
Now that Lindsay's little boy is in nursery school, she is looking for a job. At this interview, the lady asks Lindsay all sorts of questions, which Lindsay has trouble answering because she has the theme song from Jake And The Neverland Pirates going around in her head. Lindsay hopes she is not singing it out loud.
And that's funny because I have had a similar experience. And I was singing it out loud.
So look, are they great literature? Of course not. But considering the ridiculousness, sadness, stress and inherent schadenfreude of growing up and adulting in this modern age, the Fireside Grown-Up Guides are a pleasant tonic — momentarily distracting, brightly-colored, dry as a perfect gin martini, and just retro enough to be cool.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.