FUNomenal Wordplay

Read FeedChevy Chase Library

FUNomenal Wordplay

Novels for Wordplay Lovers

For most of my life I've been fond of zany wordplay, such as palindromes, anagrams, puns, lipograms, pangrams, oxymorons, and alliteration. I have discovered some novelists who share a similar fascination and whimsically employ wordplay in their fiction, even as they also explore deeper themes. If you too are a wordplay enthusiast, check out the children's and adult novels below.

Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Fable by Mark Dunn
Ella Minnow Pea lives on Nollop, an island named after the greatly revered inventor of the pangram (a phrase or sentence containing all letters of the alphabet) The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over the Lazy Dog. One day the letter "Z" falls off the inscription on a statue erected in Nollop's honor. Interpreting the fallen tile as a divine message, the leaders ban "Z" from use. Next, the letter "Q" falls off and it too is banned. As time progresses more and more letters fall, with severe punishments for any islander caught using them. Communication becomes increasingly difficult and life dismal on this island where residents pride themselves on their love of language. The only way Ella Minnow Pea can save the islanders from being unable to communicate is to come up with a pangram even shorter than Nollop's. Can she? Recommended for ages 12 and up.

Kayak Anna and Palindrome Creek by Lina Lukashevich
Anna loves collecting palindromes (words or phrases spelled the same backward as forward) and exploring Keer Creek with her dog Biesterfield. One summer day when she finds a mysterious kayak, an adventure begins with her best friend Xander. They become involved in environmental activism to save her beloved creek from polluters, journey to a magical world populated by trolls, search for her dog who disappears, and enjoy many palindromes. This novel combines whimsical wordplay (every chapter title is even a palindrome) with an ecological theme. Recommended for ages 8-13.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Milo finds life boring. One afternoon, a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room. Having nothing better to do, he decides to drive through with his toy car. He enters a strange fantasy land and meets many odd characters, including: Tock the ticking watchdog (who becomes his travel companion), King Azaz the Unabridged, Officer Short Shrift, a Spelling Bee, a Whether Man, the Mathemagician, a Which, and a Senses-Taker. To resolve a feud between Dictionopolis (Kingdom of Words) and Digitopolis (Kingdom of Numbers), he embarks on a quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason in the Castle in the Air. Along his journey he visits unusual places such as: Expectations (which he gets beyond), Island of Conclusions (reachable only by jumping), Point of View, and Mountains of Ignorance, where he contends with demons. In this brilliant children's classic full of wit, abundant wordplay, and allegorical wisdom, Milo learns how exciting life is. Recommended for ages 9 and up.

The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt
Penelope's dream of being a writer seems impossible because her mother, an event planner who believes obsessively in productivity, schedules every minute of her life. She has no idle time to daydream and write. Penelope's bleak life begins to change when she falls into an unexpected hole in her schedule and lands in the Realm of Possibility, a magical place where everyone once had enough time. Now the Great Moodler has vanished and evil Chronos has built the Clock Tower and rigidly controls everyone's time. With new friend Dill, she goes on an adventure (involving getting past the "Naughty Woulds," combatting a "Wild Bore," passing through the "Shadow of Doubt," and taking a "Flight of Fancy") to liberate the Realm of Possibility by freeing the Moodler - the one person who can help rekindle her imagination. Fans of The Phantom Tollbooth will likely appreciate this adventure full of puns and other witty wordplay. Recommended for ages 9-12.

Punished! by David Lubar
When Logan misbehaves at the library, Professor Wordsworth punishes him with a face full of magic dust that causes him to speak in puns. His friends and family (except his little sister) can hardly stand his constant spouting of puns, but he has trouble stopping himself. To cure this verbal malady, Logan must find seven examples each of oxymorons, anagrams, and palindromes within limited time. Will he succeed or will he remain punished for life? This novel is a great introduction to these kinds of wordplay. Recommended for ages 8-12.

The Name of This Book Is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch
In this suspense-filled adventure relayed by a witty narrator, two 11-year old outsiders - survivalist Cass and talkative jokester Max-Ernest - discover a mysterious box of vials, the "Symphony of Smells," which leads them to a mystery surrounding a vanished magician and a dangerous cult of people searching for the secret of immortality. Throughout this mystery, Cass and Max-Ernest must solve riddles, find anagrams, and crack codes. This is the first book in The Secret series; the story continues in If You're Reading This, It Is Too Late. Recommended for ages 8-12.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
After responding to an unusual newspaper ad seeking children with special powers, four exceptional children successfully complete a series of brain teasers and are recruited by Mr. Benedict to join his mysterious society. He challenges them to infiltrate the evil Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened, whose founder is brainwashing minds via the Whisperer, a machine that sends out subliminal messages. This adventure and mystery novel is full of wordplay, morse code, logic puzzles, and riddles for the reader to figure out along with the characters. The story continues in The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey. Recommended for ages 10 and up.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
In 1959, a self-righteous evangelical Baptist missionary and his family move from Georgia to the Belgian Congo and experience culture clash. Narrated in turns by his wife and four daughters, this deeply moving novel explores their part in the Western assault on this African country and their transformation over more than three decades. One daughter, the mute and hemiplegic Adah, likes to play with words. She makes puns, rhymes, and often reads phrases and books both forwards and backwards; she also thinks and writes in palindromes. This quirky trait has deeper symbolism within the story. Recommended for adults and advanced teen readers.

A Void by Georges Perec; translated from French into English by Gilbert Adair
The letter "e" is the most common letter in French and English. Impressively, both the original French adult novel La Disparition and its English translation A Void never once use the letter "e." Underlying its cleverness, the novel's lipogrammatic nature connects to a deeper and darker plot. In 1968, during a time of social and political turmoil in France, Anton Vowl goes missing. In an effort to solve this mystery, his friends examine his diary, which they find full of word games, especially lipograms. As they work out his puzzles and investigate various leads, they too, one by one, mysteriously disappear.

While I find this severely constrained writing unenjoyable and tedious to read, I still marvel at the author's and translator's feat. In several other works, Georges Perec shows off his ability and obsession with wordplay. For example, in his lipogrammatic novella Les revenentes, the letter "e" is the only vowel used. He also wrote Le Grand Palindrome, a short story palindrome 5566 letters in length.