I am on a mission. A quest. A journey to find the funniest picture books published for children in a given year. It isn’t an easy thing to do. First, you have to deal with the sheer awe-inspiring number of picture books published these days. Then there’s the fact that funny is as funny does. What strikes me as friggin’ hilarious may not cause so much as a flick of the lips from you. This is probably why humor awards for children’s literature are few and far between. Then add in the fact that what kids find funny and what adults find funny is vastly different. If the very existence of knock knock jokes has taught us nothing it has taught us that. But you know . . . there are exceptions. I’ve seen kids and adults rolling in the aisles with a good reading of Bark, George by Jules Feiffer. I’ve seen adults laugh in honest surprise along with their kids when surprised by the events in Fortunately by Remy Charlip. And I bet your bottom dollar that if read correctly The Simples Love a Picnic by J.C. Phillipps could be one of those books a classroom of first graders fight to the death to check out from the library. The lie is in its very name: “Simple”. As a quick perusal shows, what Phillipps is able to accomplish here is anything but simplistic. After all, writing funny books is no easy task, yet The Simples Love a Picnic blows that notion right out of the water. Highly hilarious stuff.
It started off with an innocent enough suggestion. “Let’s have a picnic,” Dad proposes. The kids, Lulu and Ben, are unfamiliar with the concept, which is probably what prompts Lulu to pack a tub of ice cream amongst the supplies (her logic that “ice cream doesn’t spill” seems sound enough at the time). Off goes the family and after the occasional mishap (the dog chasing squirrels up trees, the cat appearing in Lulu’s backpack) they find themselves in the park. But locating the perfect location for a picnic turns out to be only slightly less hazardous than surviving what happens after the food comes out. In the end, the family finds the perfect place to devour a meal, though it isn’t where you might expect it to be.
I can pinpoint the precise moment I fell in love with this book. I mean, sure I liked it from the get-go. Phillipps utilizes this cheery, upbeat can-do spirit that any child will tell you is just ASKING for trouble. And I was already pretty amused when son Ben started wondering what one eats at a picnic only to come up with a short list of what might be the worst picnic foods of all time (“Cereal?”, “Soup?”, etc.). And I could just hear myself reading this aloud to a group of kids when Rocco the dog went hell-for-leather for that squirrel up a tree (going the extra mile in turning Ben completely 180 degrees upside down). But really, it wasn’t until the picnic was underway that I went hook, line, and sinker for what Phillipps had conjured up. The family attempts to find a spot to have their picnic and Ben’s location turns out to have “Too many ants”. Pretty funny, but not as funny as Lulu’s spot. Now the sentence, “Too many birds” may not sound amusing, but suddenly Phillipps turns the scene into something out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. Lulu is seen clutching her head as, presumably, a bird dive bombs towards her, others calmly checking out the basket’s wares. This moment is echoed later when some melted ice cream sets off a kind of apocalyptic picnic frenzy of hoards of ants and even more dive-bombing birds (to say nothing of the squirrels). I’ve a weakness for any book that builds to a ridiculous climax and this one tapped into that feeling perfectly.
Phillipps isn’t exactly unknown to the world of funny picture books. It takes a very particular sort of brain to come up with titles like “Wink: The Ninja Who Wanted to be Noticed” (a book that was way into ninjas before the vast hoards of them published this year, by the way). From that book you got the very clear sense that Phillipps wasn’t just an author/illustrator to watch. She also was funny as all get out. Since that book’s release Ms. Phillipps has kept herself busy, but her books have always been big and bold. Ninjas and simians with names like Monkey Ono and the like. So part of what I admire so much about The Simples is that the book isn’t high-concept. On paper it doesn’t look like much: Family goes outside to picnic. Epic picnic fail. Family goes inside to picnic. Fin. Not much going on there. But what makes the book so great is that Phillipps is channeling great works of literature about seriously stupid people like The Stupids by Harry Allard and the Dumb Bunny books of Sue Denim. And in doing so, she manages to make something seriously smart.
I confess that I wonder if in this age of high self-esteem and fear of offense whether or not Allard’s books about the Stupids would be able to see the light of publication. Yet even as I say this I don’t mind the “simple” appellation Phillipps came up with here in the least. Yes, of course I’m aware of the term’s use historically as a sort of universal catchall for anyone mentally impaired. But taken in its modern context alongside the family featured here and it would take some pretty thin skin to find anything to object to. After all, this family isn’t really out-and-out dumb (though I have my worries about Ben). They just seem prone to awful decisions and bad luck. You could just as easily have named them The Schlimazels and probably would have been more accurate in the process (note to self: write picture book about The Family Schlimazel).
If the family’s actual name refers to anything then it’s probably the art style Phillipps chooses to utilize here. It utilizes the cut paper look that’s served her so well, but here she’s simplified it beyond her usual complexities. Of the family itself you’re pretty much lucky if you get so much as a line for your nose. Features are flattened, clothes cut and pasted. The result is not that a child could do this, but rather that a child could at least make an attempt at it. Yet for all that their eyes are mere dots in the head, Phillipps gets a lot of pathos and expression out of her little paper people. Whether it’s the turn of a mouth (comically upside down “u” shaped) to denote misery or the slant of an eyebrow over an eye, these people are pretty darn expressive. One should also note that Phillipps takes a page or two out of the graphic novelists’ handbooks when she splits her narratives on certain pages or makes use of distance and perspective. These people may be flat, but the storytelling never is.
This is the kind of book that tends to not get quite enough respect. It’s hardly the first picnic book in the world (love that Picnic by Emily Arnold McCully) but it may well be the most amusing. Between the psychotic birds and the suicidal squirrels there’s lots here to love. A great readaloud for groups and a hilarious romp overall, I am pleased as punch to designate this one of the funniest picture books of the year. Silly in all the right ways. Don’t miss it.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Stupids by Harry Allard
- The Dumb Bunnies by Dav Pilkey
- The Bears’ Picnic by Stan Berenstain
Professional Reviews: Kirkus
Yep! It has a trailer and everything.
And this one goes behind the scenes a bit. If nothing else, it shows us how cool it would be to live in Ms. Phillipps’ house.