Like many of you I snuggled down the other day and watched the Oscar Award ceremony in the comfort of my own home. I was happy. I was disappointed. I was amused. I didn’t have, what you might call, particularly high expectations, so the results often pleased me. Then we got to the end of the evening and the whole world exploded. Someone at the Platteville Public Library was a genius and posted this in response:
Spine poetry at its best (sans the spines).
But looking back at the films and actors nominated, I was struck my how humorless the entries were. Not that I expect a brilliant laugh fest every year, but humor is such a difficult art. It’s a pity that the actors that master it aren’t better lauded.
You could argue that this prejudice against funny books extends to all corners of the arts. Even, heaven forbid, children’s literature. Mind you, just this past year Leave Me Alone by Vera Brosgol garnered a Caldecott Honor while The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz won an Honor on the Newbery side of things. Not all is lost. Folks still acknowledge the importance of making kids guffaw. Here then is a brief smattering of some of the 2017 picture books this year that have made ME embarrass myself in my workplace lunchroom by laughing too loudly. Humor being as subjective as it is, I can’t say that these are all the funny picture books of the year so far. Of course not. But at least you could consider them a good place to start. Trust me. I’ve a horse in this race.
SOME FUNNY PICTURE BOOKS OF 2017
Be Quiet! by Ryan T. Higgins
Once in a great while you’ll encounter a picture book that was born for Reader’s Theater. The last time I was struck strongly by the audible narrative potential of a 32-pager was when Bob Shea created the ineffable Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. And while it would be hard to match Shea’s level of inspiration (using the term “cloven hooves” = genius) this book comes pretty dang close. There’s a kind of Pinky and the Brain-esque level of meltdown at work here between the brainy mouse and his amiable doofus companions. Perform it live with each person taking a part. I saw the folks at Hyperion do this with the book at ALA Midwinter and the result was comedy gold.
Claymates by Dev Petty, ill. Lauren Eldridge
So let me give you the 411 on picture books that feature clay as illustrations: They don’t win awards. Illustration awards, I mean. By all rights, they should. If this was a good and just world, they would. If people truly appreciated the craft that goes into making effective models, they could. So will they? They won’t (see the egregious examples: The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat or anything created by Red Nose Studio). But if humor had its own award then this book would be a serious contender. Written and illustrated by two women (woot!) it really plays up the visual gags. I can’t know the level of work that went into this, but I can guess that it was massive.
Danny McGee Drinks the Sea by Andy Stanton, ill. Neal Layton
As I mentioned before, America doesn’t have an award for humor in children’s books at the moment. Not officially. That’s why, in my spare time, I like to come up with the different categories that could house books like these. Let’s see, let’s see. There would be the Paula Danziger Medal. The Carmen Agra Deedy Honors. And, of course, the Shel Silverstein Award for Poetry and Rhyming Picture Books. Now I picked up this book with the clear intention of reading and forgetting about it. Instead, I got so thoroughly sucked in that I am now a Danny McGee convert. I like any book that goes to a ridiculous extreme. This one fits the bill. It kinda feels like that old Duck Amuck Warner Brothers short too. See if you don’t agree.
Firefighter Duckies! by Frank W. Dormer
I don’t always get Mr. Dormer’s work. I mean, I appreciate on an artistic level what he’s done with books like The Sword in the Stove or Click! but until now there wasn’t a Dormer book that properly wormed its way into my shriveled little heart. I brought home this book because I’ve a 2-year-old that devours firefighter books like a small, blue-eyed, black hole. Yet what I found was something that works on its own charming level. In this book, Dormer has tackled and tamed the art of the page turn. Put another way, if you think images of evil cupcakes and trees that eat whales are funny, you, my friend, have just hit the jackpot. Plus it reads aloud amazingly well.
Great, Now We’ve Got Barbarians! by Jason Carter Eaton, ill. Mark Fearing
On the surface it’s a cute book where the household pests are bloodthirsty warriors. However I have read it many many times to my brood and I can tell you that barbarians may be surpassing pirates as my favorite childlike adults. About the time the barbarians skittered away when the lights were turned on, leaving behind hanging pelts, I was sold.
Laundry Day by Jessixa Bagley
Bagley is probably best known for her tear-inducing, no YOU’RE crying, picture book Boats for Papa. She followed that up with a story on friends moving away, which was another play at the old heartstrings. Here she moves in a different direction, and I think the change does her good. You don’t want to be known as the sob-fest picture book author, after all. In this book two badgers are told to hang up the laundry. What their mother fails to take into consideration (and you can hardly blame her) is how these two take that seemingly simple task to a completely bonkers level. This story builds and the laughs build with it.
Mr. Fuzzbuster Knows He’s the Favorite by Stacy McAnulty, ill. Edward Hemingway
Cats plot. Cats scheme. And little fuzzy wuzzy kitties that drum their paw tips together like furry Blofelds are worth seeking out. The plot of this one is simple. In a household full of pets, Mr. Fuzzbuster lives safe and secure in the knowledge that he is more beloved by his owner than any of the other interlopers in his near vicinity. When asked to prove this, he takes the matter up with his girl. The results are not quite what he expects, however, and the last shot of him sitting with his eyes wide as dinnerplates in the last picture – it’s a memorable moment.
My Pictures After the Storm by Eric Veille
Is nobody talking about this book? How is that even possible?!? This may be the funniest book of the year. I’m not sure. The year is still young. It’s certainly one of the nuttiest. The concept is simple, of course. It’s a before and after book. Only, unlike most before and after books, you don’t really know where it’s going to go next. Here, I’ll show you an interior spread as an example:
Note: I would be remiss in not mentioning that Before and After by Jean Jullien is also a highly creative title in the same vein, and also very funny indeed.
A Perfect Day by Lane Smith
I am prepared, before God and country, to declare this book a success. The thing is, I have a funny relationship with Smith’s books. Most of the time I can take them or leave them. I appreciate the artistic style but the writing doesn’t always hit home. With this book, I sort of forgot it was Smith as I read it. At the beginning I found it similar to A Good Day by Kevin Henkes, and Smith’s art is absolutely gorgeous. Then this twist happens halfway through the book that causes the stresses and semantics to go to the next level. Am I making sense? Shoot, I should just review the darn thing. Regardless, I found it absolutely one of the funniest books I’ve read in a while, thanks in large part to this image:
This Book Will Not Be Fun by Cirocco Dunlap, ill. Olivier Tallec
This is the second book on the list today where the narrator is a bespectacled mouse attempting to control the narrative of a book and keep everything calm and sane, only to be confronted with pure unadulterated chaos (Be Quiet is the other such book). The difference between these two books lies in the approach to the subject matter. As far as I’m concerned, this two-page spread says it all:
XO OX by Adam Rex, ill. Scott Campbell
I’ve mentioned this before and rightfully so. Epistolary picture books often wind up as school assignments. I envy the child that ends up with this as their book. The art is Scott Campbell so that’s an early win right there, but it’s Rex’s writing that spikes the touchdown. You just gotta read it yourself.
And what have you found this year that brings on the smiles full force?