Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Big Joke Game

Ozzie Hinkle is having a bad day. For someone who loves to tell jokes and laugh, he is pretty glum. The trouble began at school, where he got in trouble because he wrote an unflattering (but very funny) limerick about his teacher. Then, after school, even though he has a great time playing a new board game with his best friend (games are his absolute favorite thing in the entire world), he makes a joke (again, he thinks it's very clever and witty) at his friend's expense, and his friend is so insulted he refuses to play any longer.

He gets home to find that his teacher has called his mother about his behavior, and Ozzie is sent to his room to wait for his father to come home - and his mother tells him he's going to be sent to a military boarding school to straighten out his behavior. That sounds horrible to him. He gathers up his life savings ($3.81) and decides to run away. He'll live off the land until he finds a fun place to live with other young free thinkers (who can take a joke) and grow up to be a famous comedian and show everyone. He climbs out the window and is making his way down the rose trellis when it rips off the side of the house and he finds himself falling...

He wakes up in an odd place, a place with empty space rather than sky. He meets another boy just about his age who's wearing a red devil suit and has little sharp fangs that protrude from his mouth. He introduces himself as Beelzebub, Ozzie's "guardian devil" (guardian angels are apparently for "goody-goodies," which Ozzie clearly is not) and explains that they are in limbo. Spread out in the valley below them is an enormous board game, and Ozzie must play it - and win - if he's ever going to get back to Earth. Beelzebub (or Bub, as Ozzie calls him) tells him that limbo is a place where nothing changes, ever, and that if Ozzie wants, he can stay there and play the game - the Big Joke Game - forever.

Ozzie sets to playing with enthusiasm, and the game is fantastic. I particularly enjoyed the visit to Troy (something Ozzie is learning about in history class) and the giant centipede. Even though this is set in the 1970s, avid video gamers will find they have a lot in common with Ozzie, and this book may well be the grandfather of all the virtual reality gaming books that have become so popular. Ozzie has a blast, but things don't always go well for him in the game - particularly when he's on a game square that prohibits making jokes. Bub is a bit unsettling to Ozzie at first (particularly the way he switches his tail around), but soon he proves himself to be a good companion and friend. If only he hadn't made a comment to Ozzie about him showing a lot of promise "for being our kind of guy." What exactly did that mean, anyway? Ozzie isn't so sure he wants to be their kind of guy, even if Bub seems all right, for a devil. And does he really want to stay and play the game forever?

I was so excited to finally be able to read this book again - and to read it to my children at the same time! I used to wish I could play the Big Joke Game - only I worried that I wouldn't be as good at making up limericks as Ozzie - he is quite skilled at that. It held up very well to rereading - although in my memory, the game was longer and more complex than it turned out to be. It is clear that Ozzie has A Lesson to Learn, but it is a fun learning, not heavy handed or moralistic, and no doubt will give readers food for thought as far as their own actions are concerned. This is a delightful tale, rendered even more enjoyable by Vasiliu's detailed illustrations, which accompany the text perfectly. What a joy it was to reread this book. I can only hope there are many more copies out there, waiting to be discovered. Or, better yet - that new ones will be reprinted and published soon.

The Big Joke Game by Scott Corbett; illustrated by Mircea Vasiliu (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1972)

14 comments:

  1. Neat story! I love re-reading books from my childhood! I know for a fact that I missed out on this when I was a kid but I'm glad you seem to still enjoy it :)

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  2. Thanks, Ladytink. It was wonderful to finally get a copy of this one after so many years.

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  3. What a great coincidence! I was grasping for the name of this book this morning, did a quick search using all I could remember ("board game" and "Beelzebub"), and found your post. This was one of my very favorite books from childhood. Thank you for putting this out there - can't wait to find a used copy for myself!

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  4. Hi, Enger - I'm so glad you found the post! No one I know has ever even heard of this book, so it's fun to connect with someone who loved it as a child, too. Good luck finding a used copy! I hope you'll enjoy your reread as much as I enjoyed mine. :-)

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  5. AnonymousJune 06, 2009

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I spent 30 minutes searching for the title of this book. I could remember nothing but "bub" short for beelzebub and "beware of gifts bearing Trojans" I loved this book as a child and can't wait to get a copy.

    MaryBeasty

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  6. Hi, MaryBeasty! I'm so glad I could help. It is always a pleasure to meet another Big Joke Game appreciator! I hope you manage to find a copy, and that you enjoy your reread as much as I did.

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  7. Another happy 'Big Joke Game' finder! All I could remember was Game & "Guardian Devil" and Google brought me right here! I've just ordered a copy for my 9 year old. A special bonus was that when I read the author's bio, I learned he also wrote The Lemonade Trick, which was another book I was just trying to rememeber! Thanks so much!

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    1. Sorry your comment slipped past me, Lou! I am so happy to help, and that you were able to find a copy for your child. I loved his other books, too (although this one was my favorite). Did you ever read The Red Room Riddle? I always found that one delightfully creepy.

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  8. This is one of the first books I remember reading when I was a child and I credit it with helping to foster my life-long love of reading. I'm 43 now and I still remember the thrill of losing myself in Ozzie's world. Thanks for the memories and for helping to keep this book alive.

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    1. John - My pleasure! One of the things I love about my job as a children's librarian is helping kids find books that might turn out to be one of those home run books like this one was for you. When they come back to my desk and tell me they loved the book and want more, I love it!

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  9. I was just Googling this title to see if it was still available, when I found your blog. I was thinking that my 12 year old son might like it, but now I'm not sure. I was 10 or 11 when I read it. What are your thoughts on the age range? He loves all kinds of games, and really enjoyed reading "The Westing Game" last year in school. He's an advanced reader, though.

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    1. Hi, Mistress_Madly - I think if your son enjoyed The Westing Game he'd have no trouble at all with this, and I think given his love of games, he'd get a huge kick out of it. Even if he thinks it's too young for him, the fact that you enjoyed it when you were a kid ought to have appeal, right? Let me know how it goes! I'd love to hear.

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  10. I absolutely adored this book! I read it many times and like you, I also thought the game was more involved. Thanks for the blast from the past.

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    1. Hi, Molly! I'm glad you enjoyed this too. It's funny how our recollections can be so different when we revisit an old favorite! Thanks for stopping by.

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