The Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder series for kids, by Jo Nesbo. Currently, there are four books in the series. I read them in English translation by Aladdin Books, 2007-2012, illustrated by Mike Lowery.
The series includes:
- Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder
- Bubbles in the Bathtub (Doctor Proctor’s Time Traveling Bathtub)
- Who Cut the Cheese? (The End of the World, Maybe)
- The Magical Fruit (The Great Gold Robbery)
It’s easy to tell what the schtick is with these books: as much potty humor as can be stuffed into a kids’ series without going over the line. Well, mostly without going over the line. There are lots of scenes in the sewers, baboons (just think of their rears), and always the appearance of the fart powder. In other words, these books are meant for boys and Nesbo has his finger on the pulse of boys’ humor.
They are Norwegian, as Nesbo is Norwegian, and are translations of the original (which is why they have alternate titles). And by Norwegian, I mean they very strongly give a sense of place and of Norway. You never wonder where you are. They are constantly tongue-in-cheek, with some outright humor and lots of punny references to real things (like the Rotten Ham football team or Madame Tourette’s Wax Museum). Nilly (a diminutive red-head), Lisa, and the wacky inventor Doctor Proctor live in the three primary-colored houses at the end of Cannon Avenue, and they form a relationship the begins over the failed fart powder. The first book is mostly about more simple things, like school bullies an an anaconda that lives under Oslo, but the rest of the books move further afield into outrageous adventures through time, throughout Europe, in dealing with aliens, and eventually make them king-appointed spies.
Jo Nesbo did not begin as a children’s author. He was already a best-selling author–the best in Norway, actually–with crime novels translated into forty languages, before he started Doctor Proctor. He is known for the Harry Hole series and several of his books are coming into movie and TV syndication in the near future.
As for Fart Powder, I have really mixed feelings. For one, my reading of the series was so not a normal reading. I read them out loud to my kids and it therefore took us forever. Also, I sometimes missed bits when Dad or Aunt or Grandma read to the kids. But not much. Second and third, the series is a very middling type; middle of great and not-so-great (quality-wise), and middle of inappropriate and appropriate. There were times when I thought, “We are so over this,” and considered putting the series down. There were other times when I just wanted to keep Nilly around. Maybe adopt him.
At its best, the series is sparkling and surprising magic realism, a place to go away and make no assumptions, to believe in moon chameleons and balancing shoes, and to giggle about farts, butts, and nudity. At its worst, it steps over the line–or at least my line–and I found myself verbally editing out words and phrases and reminding myself that my kids can’t actually read this by themselves until they are older. I mean, Yodolf Stahler (play on Adolph Hitler)? And the occasional cuss word? And a few creatures and situations that are sincerely terrifying to children? Etc.
I also had to struggle with letting my kids read potty humor, at all. Honest to goodness, it’s not that I mind it, it’s just that society does. How can I explain to Eamon that he must stop saying “butt” in school (after yet another note) when we’re laughing away at it, at home? It’s sticky. You want them to enjoy, but you don’t love society rejecting them, telling them they are bad, or creating these sorts of conundrums. Just walk up and say “Fart!” to an elderly person and see what happens.
Not to mention the violence. Along with the fantastic situations (orbiting the Earth with the help of flatulence, traveling through time in a bath tub), come the fantastic negative situations, like being eaten by a giant anaconda, grilled alive on a giant waffle maker, etc. At one point, my kids asked me to discontinue because one of them was scared, but when I kept reading the book silently, they returned.
Also, I hate when books are falsely long. I mentioned this in my Sisters Grimm review. Proctor (at least the Aladdin version) contains giant spaces between the words and massive margins, I can only imagine because the publisher was trying to reincarnate Harry Potter. It’s obnoxious.
And one more hurdle: Nesbo has a very distinctive writing style (at least in these books) that can make reading him difficult. He is in love with the run-on sentence. He is also very fond of making his characters stutter in dialogue. The first thing I found mostly charming, the second annoyed me so much I edited it out after awhile. As far as his language goes (in translation, at least), it is at its best playful, at its worst, distracting or–heaven forbid–mediocre.
This whole review reminds me, though, of what could be said about Roald Dahl and his books (Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, etc.). I love Roald Dahl. And yet, he is everything bad that could be said about Nesbo (crass, violent, scary) except for distracting. His writing is superb and much cleaner than Nesbo’s (or my own, for that matter). In fact, Nesbo’s books definitely have a very Dahl feel to them, which has often been imitated but very seldom replicated. I really enjoy the Mister Magorium’s Wonder Emporium mood, and I think plenty of other readers do, too. It’s an approach to writing and reading that embraces fantasy and suspension of reality, where anything goes, and the more coveted, the better (and we’re talking childhood fantasies here, like a chocolate factory with tiny people whipping the cows, or neighbors that are secretly witches).
So, in the end, I can’t really condemn Nesbo for working toward–at times–the darker side of childhood while also making their desires come alive on the page. I ended up most invested in Nilly, and found many of the other characters flat. (I never could completely picture Doctor Proctor or Juliette Margarine in my head.) But they were fun. And I snickered and chortled with the best of them at all the physical humor. Plus, the fourth book ended up being the best. So, there’s that to look forward to.
There was a movie released in March, in Norway, in Norwegian. Too bad, because it looks pretty good and quite true to the spirit of the series. Perhaps they will subtitle (which leaves the problem of kids and subtitles) or remake it. I detest dubs unless they are a particular type of animation. It is not currently available to us English-speakers.