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Literature / The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks

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A children's series by Nancy McArthur, it follows the lives of brothers Michael and Norman and their pets: the sock-eating plants Stanley (the title character) and Fluffy. As explained in book 1, Michael had sent away for a set of "Amazing Beans" (and then forgot about having done so), one of which he plants and the other of which he gives to Norman to shut him up for a while. The beans quickly grow into the titular sock-eating plants, though it takes a while for the boys to realize Stanley is behind Michael's socks disappearing.

It was adapted into a stage play in 2000.

The series includes:

  • #1: The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks (1988) — Michael and Norman start growing the Amazing Beans that Michael got in the mail, which soon become a pair of incredible sock-eating plants, much to their parents' distress.
  • #2: The Return of the Plant That Ate Dirty Socks (1990) — The family goes to Florida for spring break and takes the plants along. While there, they meet botanist Dr. Susan Sparks and her family, who become major supporting characters.
  • #3: The Escape of the Plant That Ate Dirty Socks (1992) — It's summer vacation, and the plants have learned how to pull themselves around on their own with their vines.
  • #4: The Secret of the Plant That Ate Dirty Socks (1993) — As a new school year begins, Pet Plant Day approaches... and the deadline for Michael and Norman to figure out how to get their parents to let them keep their plants for good. Meanwhile, Michael makes an amazing discovery about the plants' origins.
  • #5: More Adventures of the Plant That Ate Dirty Socks (1994) — The family goes to visit a museum near Dr. Sparks' home, including an exhibit of robotic dinosaurs and a paleontology dig.
  • #6: The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks Goes Up In Space (1995) — An astronaut who once attended Michael and Norman's school is going on a big mission in space, and Stanley and Fluffy are recruited to help out.
  • #7: The Mystery of the Plant That Ate Dirty Socks (1996) — Things are going missing around town, so the boys and their plants set out to catch the culprit.
  • #8: The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks Gets a Girlfriend (1997) — While at a rare plant auction, Stanley meets another plant and falls in love... and the feeling is mutual.
  • #9: The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks Goes Hollywood (1999) — The latest Swamp Monster movie is going to be filming in town, and the boys and their plants get involved.

This series provides examples of:

  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Norman, to Michael, because they're polar opposites — Michael's a slob, while Norman's a neatness nut who's always nagging him to clean (and is always talking or singing when Michael just wants some peace and quiet). And they have to share a room to boot.
  • Big Eater: The sock-eaters get bigger and hungrier in almost every book, but they're still plants, so they don't really get fat (though Stanley's vines are noted as having gotten a little thicker in book 1, which Michael suspects is because of the sugary goodies he's burying in the pot for added treats). By book 5, Stanley's up to six socks a night (a trait his Evil Twin shares) and Fluffy, who's slightly smaller, eats five a night.
  • Bizarre Taste in Food: The plants and their taste for socks, of course, but the humans get in on it too from time to time — book 2 has Norman making a grape jelly and lettuce sandwich for himself, and baked bean sandwiches in later books, which Michael picks up on.
  • Bouquet Toss: In book 5, when Shawn Smith is getting married, his wife tosses her bouquet, which is caught by a friend of hers who plays basketball. Earlier, when he's told about this, Norman thinks Shawn should have one to toss too, so the person who catches the bride's bouquet will have someone to marry right then and there, but is told it doesn't work like that. (Traditionally, the groom would toss the bride's garter for the same purpose, but this is never mentioned and doesn't happen at this wedding anyway.)
  • Brick Joke: In book 3, the brothers and Mom pack up twenty-seven smaller plants and take them to Dr. Sparks' workplace, but have to stop at a motel overnight, where one plant falls over behind a chair. In book 4, Dr. Sparks finds the missing plant at the same motel, and once they figure out where it came from and Mom explains things to the motel's staff, the plant is turned over to Dr. Sparks.
  • Bunny Ears Picture Prank: Near the end of book 2, when the family is getting ready to head home, Dr. Sparks has all four kids line up for a group picture. When she looks through the camera, she sees that all of them are looking and acting silly, and Michael is pulling this trope on Sarah. She takes the picture anyway.
  • Commander Contrarian: Norman almost always disagrees with Michael about things just for the sake of disagreeing, and if Michael tells him not to do something, he'll insist on doing it anyway, just to annoy his brother. Michael even lampshades this in book 3, thinking to himself that if he keeps opposing Norman's idea (in this case, to put on a stage show to make money), it'll just make Norman even more determined to do it. Michael can be the same way when it's Norman urging him to do things (especially cleaning).
  • The Dog Bites Back: Jason treated his plant poorly, and it started trying to hurt him in return.
  • Edible Ammunition: Norman tends to load his Super Splasher Water Blaster with strange yet edible things, such as maple syrup (for pancakes), grape jelly, orange juice, mustard (for hot dogs), tomato juice (to help wash skunk scent off Fluffy) and chocolate syrup (for frozen yogurt), which tends to lead to big messes. He also suggests loading it with ketchup once, but goes with the grape jelly instead.
  • Evil Twin: Jason, having swiped some of Stanley's seeds, plants one for himself, but mistreats the resulting plant, causing it to become this to Stanley (which is lampshaded in book 5). Fortunately, Norman tames it so the family can sell it to a botanical garden... but in book 5, it's acting up again until Norman shows its new owners how to make it behave (which involves a lot of talking and singing to it), helping it get better again.
  • Exploding Closet: This trope happens three times in the very first book, all to the same person. First, when Michael is bribed to clean up his room, he really just shoved everything in the closet; Norman finds out the hard way when he opens the door to find one of his hats and gets buried in an avalanche of junk. The second time, when he opens the door to search for missing socks, Norman is fully expecting this trope, but is only buried in junk up to his knees. The third time, he's trying to find his Super Splasher Water Blaster to water his plant and gets completely buried again (much to his annoyance, as Michael had told him he'd tossed most of the junk in their room out the window).
  • The Food Poisoning Incident: In book 1, Stanley eats Michael's acorn collection and a library book (retconned into a plastic toy race car in future books) and gets a little sick. In book 2, Fluffy gets slightly ill from eating a dirty sock, and later accidentally eats a sock with a tiny musical microchip and battery and is horribly poisoned. Fortunately, both plants survive these events (in the second case because Dr. Sparks performs surgery on Fluffy to remove the microchip from the vine that had sucked it in).
  • Fungus Humongous: Played with in book 4, where it's mentioned that scientists discovered an entire underground fungus that shoots up normal-sized honey-colored mushrooms all over the place. The fungus as a whole is said to weigh one hundred and ten tons, cover thirty-seven acres, and be at least fifteen hundred years old. This is actually true.
  • Funny Answering Machine: When the family gets an answering machine in book 5, Norman and his friend Bob start calling from Bob's house and leaving silly messages, then rush back to hear themselves on playback. After their parents put a stop to this, Dad teaches Norman how to record an actual message so he won't use it as a toy anymore... only for Norman to secretly rerecord it, except this time he sings it to the tune of "Camptown Races". Mom and Dad aren't pleased, but at least one caller compliments them on having a song on the machine.
  • Gasshole:
    • The plants always burp after sucking in a sock. Fluffy also says "Ex" afterward because Norman tried to teach him to say "Excuse me".
    • Book 3 has Dr. Sparks record several plants eating at the same time and send the family a tape of the noises, which is described as sounding like a "symphony of schlurps", followed by "a burp concert". All of them are cracking up by the time it's done.
  • Gossip Evolution: In book 5, Michael tells a few of his friends about his family going on a weekend trip, which will include a one-night stay at a natural history museum with some other kids and a field trip to a dig site the day afterward. One of their nosier classmates overhears and spreads it, and Norman tells several of his classmates too. This trope takes its course, and Michael hears several equally wild versions by the end of the day (even the principal isn't immune to believing one of them, coming up to Michael and congratulating him on going to Mongolia to find dinosaur eggs and being somewhat disappointed when Michael corrects him); the next morning, when said principal hears the rumor has evolved to involve a live tyrannosaurus on a destructive rampage in Cleveland, he puts a stop to the gossip by announcing the true story over the PA.
  • Incessant Music Madness: Norman loves to sing, and is incredibly loud when he does it. It drives his brother up the wall.
  • Instant Home Delivery: Inverted — book 1 explains that Michael is always saving things and sending away for them, but they take so long to arrive that it's a nice surprise when they do arrive, because he's usually forgotten about it by that point.
  • The Joy of X: "The X That Ate Y" is the format for both the series title itself and the in-universe book "The Glob That Ate Outer Space".
  • Killer Gorilla: Invoked — Jason owned a realistic-looking rubber gorilla mask, but traded it to Michael, who uses it to try and scare whomever's breaking into their room at night and causing their socks to disappear (later revealed to be their plants). Michael later traded it to Norman, who likes to pop out of various places and surprise people with it. It pops up at least once in each of the first six books.
  • Music Soothes the Savage Beast: Norman tames Jason's plant in part by singing to it. He passes the technique on to the plant's new owner in book 5.
  • No-Sell: At one point in book 1, the family goes out to dinner, and Norman puts on his gorilla head to surprise their waitress (having already been popping out of places while wearing it to surprise people earlier in the day). When the rest of the family orders a large pepperoni pizza, she's completely unphased by Norman's appearance, asking only "And what will your gorilla have?"
  • Not So Above It All: Stanley, while normally well-behaved, displays a bout of immaturity in book 7 when he hides Michael's book after Michael had been paying more attention to it than to Stanley. Luckily, Michael realizes why Stanley was acting out, and is understanding rather than upset.
  • The Noun Who Verbed: Both the series title itself and the in-universe book "The Glob That Ate Outer Space".
  • Out Of Control Popcorn: In book 6, Norman and his friend Bob decide to make popcorn, but can't find the top to the popper. They decide to start running it anyway, and a massive mess ensues when they can't find the top, or an alternate covering, in time.
  • Paste Eater: The plants eat socks, of course (though they also like orange juice), with their favorites being fudge ripple (white with brown stripes), though they also like white (vanilla), pink (strawberry) and brown (chocolate). It's later revealed that their prehistoric ancestors ate bugs, but Stanley and Fluffy don't care for them.
  • Picky Eater: Stanley prefers dirty socks, while Fluffy only eats clean ones (unless he's desperate — in book 2, he does eat a dirty sock and gets slightly sick from it). Some of the plants, including Jason's, also display a preference for certain colors, such as white with brown stripes (which the characters refer to as fudge ripple flavor). Stanley also prefers Michael's socks over anyone else's, though he does eat socks worn by other people in books 2, 3 and 6 out of necessity.
  • Planimal: The titular plants are fully mobile and have displayed learning tendencies.
  • Punny Name: Book 8 introduces a plant named Curly Temple, who becomes Stanley's girlfriend.
  • Retcon: Book 1 has Stanley getting sick from eating some acorns and a library book. In future books, it's changed to his having gotten sick from eating a plastic toy race car.
  • The Reveal: In book 1, Michael gets a set of Amazing Beans in the mail, but loses the leaflet that came with them and can't remember even sending away for them, leaving their species a mystery (especially after it turns out they eat socks, which no other plant has been seen to do). In book 4, their true origins become clear when Michael gets a new book from the library and discovers an illustration of a prehistoric plant that looks a lot like Stanley and Fluffy. After some further research (and help from Dr. Sparks), it's confirmed that the plants are descended from a species that lived during the dinosaur age, and book 5 further reveals that said species are insect-eaters after Michael discovers a fossil of a plant just like theirs with a partly-digested bug inside.
  • Revenge of the Sequel: In-universe, Michael and Norman have seen a movie called The Swamp Monster. In book 6, Norman discovers a sequel, Son of Swamp Monster. Out-of-universe, every single sequel includes the phrase "The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks" and some qualifier such as The Return of..., The Escape of... and so on.
  • The Runaway: Norman, in book 4, because he's so angry at his parents for wanting to send the plants to a botanical garden and desperate to keep Fluffy. It's a spur-of-the-moment thing, and leads to him falling off a cliff in the park... fortunately, Fluffy grabs him and keeps him from falling any further until help can arrive. Fluffy's actions to save Norman lead to the parents deciding they can't get rid of the plants.
  • Secret-Keeper: Jason becomes one in book 1. The sock-eating secret gradually spreads to others, such as Dr. Sparks (though she doesn't believe it at first) and her family in book 2, and from them to other botanists in book 3. By book 5, certain museums and botanical gardens are openly displaying others of their kind as sock-eaters, and it comes out to Michael and Norman's entire school during the events of book 6.
  • Show Within a Show: Book 1 mentions a book that Michael owns, "The Glob That Ate Outer Space", and the "Swamp Monster" films are mentioned a few times throughout the series. Book 7 introduces an unnamed series of kids' horror novels that Michael and his classmates are fans of.
  • Sibling Rivalry: Michael and Norman have a constant rivalry going on... but will put it aside when they have a common goal, such as trying to keep their plants.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Among other things, Michael's a slob, while Norman's a Neat Freak. Michael also likes things quiet, while Norman is usually loud.
  • Slice of Life: Most of the books deal with the characters' normal lives... which have been somewhat complicated by the arrival of the titular plants.
  • Smelly Skunk: Book 4 has a skunk approach the titular plants when they're in the back yard. Having previously been approached by a cat and squirrel that started bothering them, the plant Fluffy doesn't wait to get pawed or clawed — he just grabs the skunk to move it away. This proves a bad idea, as the panicked animal immediately sprays him, causing him to "pass out". The family, when they find out, have to tow Fluffy to a car wash and clean him off with tomato juice (and then rinse it off very fast so the salt in the juice won't hurt him) to de-stench him as a result.
  • Spy Speak: In book 1, Michael and his friend Jason start using codewords for the plants and their favorite food (referring to socks as pancakes, and later ice cream) in public. This gets dropped pretty quickly, though not before one of the nosier girls overhears them talking about "fudge ripple pancakes" and wants to know how to make them.
  • Stuffed into a Trashcan: Happens twice to Norman.
    • In the first book, as Michael is sorting the piles of junk in his side of the room into boxes, Norman tries to jump over said boxes and falls into the one marked "Throw Out or Give Away".
    • In the second book, the family has rented an RV and is going to Florida for their vacation. Norman, who is up and about when they're moving at one point, loses his balance, causing him to fall backwards into a plastic trash can and get stuck, much to Michael's amusement.
  • Talking to Plants: Norman likes to talk and sing to Fluffy, usually at the top of his lungs. Michael talks to Stanley too, but quietly so he isn't obnoxious about it like Norman can be. In book 7, he discovers that Stanley particularly likes being read to.
  • Tentacled Terror: Referenced during the first book, when Michael stays up late to watch a monster movie featuring a giant octopus attacking Tokyo (there's also a mad scientist).
  • This Is My Side: In the first book, after arguing about putting up walls to split their room (which their mother vetoes), Michael and Norman wind up putting a line through their room so Michael can keep his messiness on his side and Norman can keep his neatness on his side. Norman promptly starts knocking back anything that might be even the slightest bit over in his side, and Michael retaliates by strewing things around even more on his side if there's a bare spot on his half of the floor.
  • Tomato Skunk Stink Cure: Used in book 4 after Fluffy gets sprayed by a panicked skunk that he tried to move away from him. Since tomato juice also contains salt, which can kill plants, Michael and his family have to carefully apply it and then wash it off in a hurry to make sure he won't get hurt further.
  • Trash of the Titans: At the start of the series, Michael's half of his and Norman's room is this trope. Described as looking like a junk heap, it's so bad that "When [he] was forced to make his bed, first he had to find it."
  • Vacation Episode: Book 2 sees the family going to Florida for a few weeks. Book 5 has a smaller version where they visit a museum and paleontology dig for a weekend.
  • Water Guns and Balloons: Throughout the series, Norman winds up causing quite a bit of chaos with his Super Splasher Water Blaster and the odd things he loads it with. Most of which are food items.
  • When Trees Attack: While not a tree, Jason's plant is pretty hostile at times, to the point where it actually attacks people who get within range. Fortunately, Norman is able to tame it.