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Do Humorous Picture Books Need a Takeaway?

This past week, I've been reading and examining a few humorous and zany picture books. Kids love exaggeration don't they? Love to imagine the impossible? Love to escape into a world that is different? Love to just plain laugh at silliness. In reading more with a writer's eye, I wondered if there were any hidden meanings tucked away in these books, layered into the details -- a takeaway for adults or kids? I dug a little deeper and here are my thoughts. After I stopped laughing that is.

The Stupids Step Out (Houghton Mifflin, 1974) by Harry Allard and pictures by James Marshall is hilarious and over-the-top silliness. The title and cover art obviously prepare us for the tone of the book and the opening of the book starts with "One day Stanley Q. Stupid had an idea. This was unusual." The story continues with Mr. Stupid wanting to take his family out for the day and each page delights readers with zaniness and exaggeration just like the cover's tone implies. The text left lots of room and clues for James Marshall to weave his magic in the pictures. Is there a takeaway from this book? For adults? I think it reminds us to not always be serious and see the fun, silly side of life. For kids? It shows a family spending quality time together, playing together. This family has a few oddities, but they don't think of themselves as different from anyone else they're oblivious to their own appearance. Refreshing!

John Patrick Norman McHennessy -- the boy who was always late (Crown Publishers, 1987) by John Burningham. This is a far-fetching tale about a boy whose quest to learn and get to school on time is derailed by a few unusual encounters along the way; a crocodile in the drain, a lion and a tidal wave to name a few. This story's plot twist at the end is a nice surprise for kids and adults. My takeaway from this book is life isn't always as it seems, is it? I like how John stays the course to get to school. I like how John continues to tell the truth even when his teacher doesn't believe him. Shouldn't we all stay on course and tell the truth even when there's risk of discipline and disbelief.  A fun exaggerated story and I like the difference in size the illustrator showed between boy and teacher especially when you reach the final scene in the book.

A Girl and her Gator (Arcade Publishing, 2006) by Sean Bryan and Tom Murphy. This is a fun, zany story about a girl who discovers she has a gator on her head and as the gator convinces her to get out of her house and carry-on with life, the little girl wants to find the perfect outfit to compliment her new look. The rhyme, repetition and rhythm in this book tickles your funny bone. It's such a peppy read-a-loud and sometimes I felt I wanted to tap my feet along as I read. The pacing was fabulous and the illustrations complimented the language. I love the two-page spread of the girl (Claire) and her wardrobe choices. The universal takeaway from this book was to not worry about what others think of you and to be yourself. Being different can be cool especially when you have a gator up there! 

OH NO! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed The World) (Hyperion, 2010) written by Mac Barnett with pictures by Dan Santat is....can you guess from the title?...the story about a little girl who builds a robot for her science project and how it destroys the city/world and how is she going to stop it because it can't read or hear or feel pain. Exaggeration to the nth degree or is it with the brilliance of our children's minds today?  This book was lively and the fun dialog moved the plot forward with very few words. I liked the comic book feel to the illustrations and the girl's edgy attitude and character. Will kids be empowered by this character? I think so. The rule of three is used here with the girl solving the problem on the 4th attempt. There's lots of suspense and tension and it doesn't feel like a short read because there's so much to study in the illustrations. My takeaway on this story is that there isn't anything you can't do when you set your mind to something. Dream big! And don't give up.

All of these stories entertain? Do fun, zany picture books need to have a theme or hidden message for kids to enjoy the book? To enjoy the book, no. But when they read the book over and over again, isn't it fun to discover there's more to a book than they first thought. Food for thought.


About Me

I'm a children's writer and the former Assistant Regional Advisor for the Austin Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

I love blue sky days, endless cups of coffee and cuddly, cozy PJ's.

I'm represented by Erzsi Deàk of Hen & ink, A Literary Studio.

I'm a contributor to ReaderKidZ, a website devoted to fostering a love of reading in kids K-5.


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