Puns. Puns are hard. I think that it’s safe to say that every adult has a kind of pun-limit. We can only take so many of them until we hit that limit and our groans turn from humored acknowledgments of cleverness to real moans of pain. Of course this limit is entirely reliant on the quality of the puns at hand, particularly when you’re dealing with picture books. Now we turn our attention to Knuckleheads by Joan Holub, as illustrated by Michael Slack. As I read through the book I found my pun limit thwarted time and time again. The sheer weirdness of the concept combined with the four storylines . . . well, basically this is like nothing you’ve ever seen (let alone dreamed up) before. You can’t deny it. If fairytales were performed entirely by sentient isolated body parts, this is certainly how their stories would go.
Four stories, all held together by a single green-skinned witch. Four stories, all based on famous fairy tales, in which the characters have been replaced with hands, feet, noses, thumbs, and other extreme extremities. In the first tale "Handsel and Gretel" two troublemakers outwit an evil witch. The witch is caught, but escapes into the next story "Handerella" where she masquerades as the little hand’s evil stepmother. Instead of a beautiful gown, Handerella goes to the ball in an evening glove with a ring (toe-pazz?) and when she runs away in the night the prince ("Finger Prints") tries to find the lady in the kingdom that will fit the ring. Foiled once more the witch briefly participates in Thumbelina (it’s a short tale, haha) and then becomes the evil queen in "Nose White". And even when this story finishes, however, she’s bound for other tales like "Paul Bunion" and "The Adventures of Tom Thumb" to wreck havoc everywhere.
I would not have imagined the sheer amount of hand-based puns a single human brain is capable of producing. Mood rings, finger food, thumb wrestling, brass knuckles . . . basically if you can think of some kind of hand-based pun it’s in here. After reading Handsel and Gretel I was convinced that Holub had done all she could, and maybe that was partly true. But about the time you come to the tale of "Handerella" and her evil foot-based stepsisters, that’s when things go from merely weird to downright bizarre. Now the foot jokes come out as well (though there’s certainly enough hand-based entertainment to go around too). And then when Snow White becomes Nose White… you get the picture. But somehow it actually works. I mean they’re all pretty funny to read through and the stories hold together. For all its insane anarchistic look and feel, this is a competent series of fractured tales. Though obviously you’d have to hand it to a kid who already knew the stories already and would be able to get the jokes.
The sheer amount of details in this book visually are also staggering. In fact, I had to start wondering at some point whether or not illustrator Michael Slack gave any suggestions of his own on some of these details. I mean, did Holub come up with Nose White being sent into a grove of "palm trees" (oh heavens) or Slack? Did Slack come up with the image of the witch peering one side of the cover, showing up face-first on the back of the book? Did he have the foresight to come up with the hands using sign language to spell out the word "love" while Handerella’s fingers do the same on top of her head? Whatever his contributions, Slack’s art is completely computer generated, though you might not be aware of that fact at first. The look of the book is meant to conjure up images of classic fairy tale novels. Hence you get some pretty endpapers with a classic pattern on the front (interrupted by the characters at the back). After that, however, it’s pretty raucous. I will say that even though the book has a hand-drawn look at times, people who are not fans of computer generated illustration would do best to steer clear of this puppy. It may be a little too smooth for their tastes.
The whole characters-as-body parts style is pretty touch and go (ho ho), however. There’s a bit of inconsistency to it at times. For example, why does Handerella’s stylized dog have three finger-like ears? Why will some characters have faces and others just have eyes on their fingers? Why can some hands be people while others, like the one-hand band, be five characters with each finger a person? And why am I even asking any of this? Honestly, I don’t suppose it even matters. If you can swallow the logic that thumbs are capable of taking a turn about the room on their own little legs, the rest of Slack’s crazy logic should suffice.
In my experience, kids deal with weird stuff in books with a lot more grace and appreciation than their adult contemporaries. Hand a kid Garmann’s Summer for example, and they’ll get into it. Hand that same book to an adult and watch them cringe. This book won’t make any grown-ups quiver but it’s certainly going to be interesting trying to sell it to them. "Okay it’s fairy tales only they’re more like fractured fairy tales and all the characters are body parts. With legs." Oh yeah. That’s gonna go down like a dream with some of my more staid and unimaginative patrons. Basically this is going to appeal to fans of Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man both in terms of content and design. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Stinky Cheese Man was the original inspiration for the layout of this tale. Both stories break down the fourth wall with great frequency, and they’ve a similar feel in terms of bizarre content and twisted senses of humor. Clearly this is not going to be like anything else on your shelf, though. It’s an amusing ride with a style and charm entirely of its own.
On shelves now.
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Be sure to check out Michael Slack’s illustration blog as well.
Zut alors! Joan Holub has done a lot of books!