What’s So Funny, Kid?
In our lesser moments, we’d all like to blame someone else for our mistakes. Small children say someone else ate the cookie, someone else farted, someone else made them spill the milk. Adults claim they aren’t responsible for being late, for burning supper, for messing up.
Humor in picture books resonates when it centers on foibles like this one — universal enough for young readers and their caregivers to share.
In Bob Shea’s sidesplitting WHO WET MY PANTS? (Little, Brown, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8), a scout troop leader arrives at his campsite from a doughnut run with distinctly damp pants. (Is he the leader? Maybe, maybe not. He might just be a fellow in a leaderless troop.) In any case, the troop members are animals, and they’re all part-adult and part-kid, in that wonderful way that picture books allow.
Our hero, Reuben, is a large bear with the urge to punish others, and they all look at him anxiously as he blames his little accident on them: “Oh, sure, it’s all chipper, cheery Chattytown when I bring doughnuts, but when someone wets my pants, everybody clams up.”
Shea is also the author of the hysterical and cathartic “Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great.” As in that book, his ability to create animal characters who exaggerate deeply human imperfections is spot on. His bouncy cadence gives the all-dialogue text terrific expression when read aloud.
Zachariah OHora’s marvelously ugly but endearing creatures live in a reassuring landscape of bright green trees and red toadstools that promise forgiveness even as accusations are hurled. Reuben’s friends are unremittingly kind: “I used to wet my pants all the time,” they say. And, “It could happen to anyone.”
Finally Reuben talks them all through the events leading up to the debacle, and while readers will quickly detect the moment he wet himself, the bear himself concludes that his pants are broken. “Thanks for nothing, leaky broken pants! Making me blame all my super-great friends,” he moans. The solution allows him to make amends yet still evade responsibility.
Then, in the adorable manner of both picture book animals and human toddlers, he spends the rest of the day naked from the waist down.
Eric Velazquez, an author-illustrator perhaps best known for picture book biographies, steps into comedy with OCTOPUS STEW (Holiday House, 40 pp., $17.99; ages 4-8). In it, a kid named Ramsey in an Afro-Latino family follows his chic but no-nonsense grandma as she makes the title dish. Ramsey’s fondness for drawing and his interest in superheroes prove useful when the still-living cephalopod takes over the kitchen and attacks his grandma. But can he rescue her?
At this point, a surprise gatefold opens to reveal that Ramsey is telling a tall tale. Ten family members plus a Chihuahua have been hanging on his every word.
The gatefold spread is charming. There’s a real sense of family warmth. But the effect is to lower the stakes. None of Ramsey’s story is true, and that means there’s no emotional content anymore. Back in the tale, the problem is quickly solved, not by the kid, but by the grandma, who befriends Señor Pulpo. But why? And what’s it like to be friends with your dinner, especially when it’s a murderous sea creature?
All that said, Velazquez draws a great octopus, the intense primary color palette is wonderfully energized for a group read-aloud, and the story provides an invitation for families to create tall tales together.
Liz Climo’s PLEASE DON’T EAT ME (Little, Brown, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8) is also about making friends with your dinner. We meet a sprightly gray bunny who burrows into the territory of a hulking, lonely bear. “Aw, nuts,” says the bunny. “Please don’t eat me.” Thus begins a verbal sparring match that replicates the way certain friends like to provoke each other, and chase each other, quarreling one minute and giggling the next.
The bear wants to eat the bunny, but the little smart-mouth suggests ordering a pizza instead. Yeah, they’re in a yellow-green digitally rendered meadow at the edge of a forest, but they get delivery anyhow — and share.
Then the bunny brings up the dangerous subject again. “You aren’t gonna eat me now, right?”
“I don’t know…,” muses the bear. “It just doesn’t feel like a meal without dessert.”
Later, the bunny agrees to pretend to be eaten so the bear will look cool to a judgmental clique of nearby bears, deadpanning: “Oh … no. I am being eaten. What a bummer. Ouch.” Eventually, no surprise, they end up friends — though they never stop trying to get a rise out of each other. Climo wields enormous charm and poses questions about friendship that might lead to great conversations.
In Minh Li’s THE PERFECT SEAT (Disney/Hyperion, 32 pp., $17.99; ages 4 to 8), the story may be slight, but the relationship matters and the central problem is easy for both children and adults to connect to. A daddy moose and calf leave a bookshop together, new book in hoof. “Can you read to me?” asks the calf. The answer is yes, but first they need to find the best possible place to sit.
As they hunt, Gus Gordon’s line drawings put the moose pair in cozy color, while their surroundings are in sketchy blue and white. The seat that’s “too rough” is a bicycle. The seat that’s “too slippery” is a slide. Although the perfectionist father’s expression is most often frustrated, it’s clear that his calf is having a pretty wonderful day.
That’s a lovely reversal some picture books manage: The adult character expresses the challenges a child would likely have (“I want things to be perfect! Nothing here is right!”), while the child character, though still a child, gets to be sanguine or wise. Li has written a true picture book text: It leaves room for the artist to create a story, and room for the reader’s imagination, too.
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