Today, we’re delighted to be hosting Jeff Szpirglas, author of the funny-scary new middle grade, Sheldon Unger & the Dentures of Doom. I mean, it’s Halloween time, after all, so what better time to celebrate the things that make us both scream and laugh at the same time! Jeff is here with a guest post to discuss just that! Plus, keep reading to learn more about his book.
SHELDON UNGER AND THE DELIGHT OF FRIGHT
By Jeff Szpirglas
The late, great film critic, Pauline Kael put it best when writing about Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie: “Scary-and-funny must be the greatest combination for popular entertainment,” she wrote. “Anything-and-funny is, of course, great — even funny-and-funny. But we come out of a movie like Carrie, as we did out of Jaws, laughing at our own childishness. It’s like watching our team win a ballgame — we’re almost embarrassed at how bracing it is.”
Sheldon Unger Vs. The Dentures Of Doom is what happens when I blindly follow my own instincts, and they apparently oscillate wildly between laughter and screams (and grossout humor, which was the bread and butter of my early career in kids’ entertainment). The book was rejected by one notable publisher for this reason alone: how do we market a story that is simultaneously funny and scary? Is this confusing for young readers, who might find the shifts in tone too abrupt? That was the response I got, but I never understood why this critique would be a liability. The best stories that resonated for me knew that comedy and horror were close cousins. Look the works of Roald Dahl, whose nasty stories about genocidal witches or children getting killed off in bizarre candy factories are laced with such delicious jokes that they make the horror palatable.
Scary stories and comedy tell truth, too, but magnify them through hyperbolic situations (monster amok, ghosts in a house, not realizing that stuff in your hair isn’t actually hair gel) that can be so intense they elicit either laughter or screams. I’ve always loved it when those wires get crossed and I’m leaping out of my seat, then laughing at myself for doing so. Or vice versa.
And to be sure, Dentures of Doom is full of crazy hyperbolic situations. There is a boy forced to wear a pink fairy outfit. There is a monster that literally chews the teeth from its victims. There are also enough fart jokes to hold my interest over 200 pages.
But with Dentures of Doom, I was also writing a love letter to my late grandmother. I’m fascinated by our grandparents and their connection with history, and in particular, the darker side of our collective past that we often lose when it gets relegated to books and sound bites. Among my grandparents was a pair of Holocaust survivors who, in life, were able to balance the terrors of their early years with a zeal for the sweet side of life.
Dentures never goes to that dark chapter of human history. But it explores the nature of untapped evil. It does so in a way that is real, and with ugly consequences. It also, I hope, has a wicked sense of humor, and puts a new spin on what the job description of the tooth fairy is.
“Dentures” is the story of 8th grade student Sheldon Unger, who unwittingly unleashes hellish forces locked up in his cranky grandmother’s wooden trunk. He begrudgingly takes up the mantle as a demon-hunting tooth fairy, while simultaneously trying to win the heart of his school crush and keep himself from getting pummeled by the grade 8 alpha male. Of course, he must also keep from getting pummeled by the Tenebrion, a shadow demon from another realm intent on destroying our own.
Jeff has reached that magical point in his career where he no longer can count the books he’s written on his fingers, but that’s okay. He still has toes. His work has ranged from television scripts to early reader chapter books to nonfiction titles such as FEAR THIS BOOK (finalist, 2008 Ontario Library Association Silver Birch Award), and GROSS UNIVERSE (2005, IPPY Finalist, Juvenile category and a pick for YALSA’s Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults). He’s a regular contributor to Rue Morgue Magazine, and is now working on a terrifying tale about an impossible skull. Jeff also works full time jobs as both classroom teacher and father of twins. Needless to say, if any reader here has a used time machine they can spare, Jeff is looking to buy one.