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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Chaos Unleashed: What Picture Books Tell Us When They Go Completely Bonkers

aintgonnapaintI’ve been thinking a lot about chaos lately.

I don’t know if it’s the state of the world today, the upcoming election, or just the fact that I live in a house with a two-year-old and a five-year-old, but in this atmosphere a woman’s thoughts turn to the power of complete and utter anarchy.  That’s been on my mind thanks, in large part, to some classic book rereleases I’ve been enjoying this year.  Older picture books.  Classic picture books.  Picture books that give no outward indication of the fine kerfuffles enclosed within.  So today, we pay homage to those titles that most successfully tap into the heart of the proper fiasco in all its wild, untamed, unapologetic glory.

completecuriousgeorgeOn October 4th, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released the 75th Anniversary edition of The Complete Adventures of Curious George. This isn’t the most groundbreaking bit of news.  Five years ago they issued the 70th Anniversary edition, and the odds are good that five years from now we’ll have in our hands the 80th Anniversary edition.  Still, I was very pleased to get my hands on a copy.  I’d never read ALL the original Rey Georges to my offspring, though I was pretty sure I knew all the elements that wouldn’t fly in a picture book today.  Sniffing ether?  Check.  Smoking pipes?  Check.  Getting kidnapped out of colonial Africa by an unapologetic white guy in a big hat?  Check check and check (makes you really appreciate Furious George Goes Bananas sometimes, don’t it?).  Yep, I was pretty sure I knew all the ins and outs.  Nothing could surprise me.

Then I read Curious George Gets a Medal.

If you are unfamiliar with this particular George adventure, it reads a lot like an older episode of The Simpsons.  The first part of the book is all about wacky hijinks and the second part is more staid and serious.  The two storylines also have absolutely nothing to do with one another, and it was this first part of the book that really hooked my attention.

Written in 1957, the book begins with George receiving a letter while The Man With the Yellow Hat takes off for that unnamed job of his.  Inspired to write his own missive, the ape locates a fountain pen and attempts to fill it directly with ink using a funnel.  It looks something like this:

So far so good . . .

So far so good . . .



Did I mention the book was written in 1957?  There are few pleasures in this life quite as magnificent as watching a 21st century child act superior to George, as if they (or for that matter, their parents) had any idea how to fill a fountain pen themselves.  George tries to clean up the ink with a blotter (again, a bit on the dated side there) and when that doesn’t work he goes and gets some soap powder.  Soap powder, I tell you!  Then he gets a hose and begins the process of slowly drowning his own house.  To get the water out he attempts to purloin a local pump belonging to a farm, but in doing so manages to let loose all the farm’s pigs before taking off with a cow as well.

curiousgeorgeink3It’s the escalation of a fiasco that is part of its pleasure.  George has always traditionally stood in for the young reader, and I’d go so far as to say that this is his most impressive bit of chaos in any of his books.  Larceny, vandalism, criminal mischief, and he gets a medal by the book’s end (the title needs a spoiler alert).  Reading this book, I began to wonder what the earliest examples might be of picture book authors and illustrators going hog wild on the chaotic front.  Interestingly The Cat in the Hat, himself a walking id, was also published in 1957.  If you like, you might choose to read something into what was happening in America during that time.

richardscarrybusytownAnother collection of picture books, this time released as recently as on September 6th, is Richard Scarry’s Busytown Treasury.  Since we Birds run more of a Cars and Truck and Things That Go household over here, I was interested in looking at some of these very different Scarry tales.  Happily, I was not ready for Scarry’s own particular brand of chaotic humor.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, properly prepared me for A Day at the Fire Station.

Now to properly appreciate this book, it is best to watch how Scarry builds and builds and builds the frenetic energy of the piece.  Two little raccoons named Drippy and Sticky enter a fire station.  For whatever reason, they start to paint the place with the firetrucks and firefighters still in it.  Mild paint splatter ensues.  This is topped a few pages later by the scene of an accident that the firefighters must attend.  It is, and here you begin to get a glimpse of Scarry really getting into this, a crash between a cement mixer, a honey truck, and a haywagon.  BUT WAIT!  There’s more.  The firefighters return to the station, slip on the paint job (seriously, who paints a floor?), and we get this rather glorious scene.


But do not for one moment THINK we are even close to done. Scarry’s just warming up, folks.

fire-station-2The firefighters immediately get another call, so even though they’ve just potentially wrecked millions of dollars’ worth of equipment they roll their firetrucks out the door AGAIN (which, for the record, are still covered in cement/honey/hay) and go put out a pizza fire.  When they return everything seems calm.  Like the eye of a storm.

And that’s when the strawberry jam truck gets hit by Roger Rhino’s wrecking crane.


Please enjoy what has to be the most sarcastic sentence in any Richard Scarry book ever:


I will leave you now with the last image. It’s like Carrie‘s prom or something.


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you create a fiasco.

There are other, more recent books, that follow in this wacked out tradition, of course.  I have a particular fondness for the paint-based insanity to be found in I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More by Karen Beaumont and David Catrow (extra points for the nude full-body painting).

But what are your favorites?  What books work as a kind of catharsis in this age of televised insanity?  Because as strange as it may sound, we need picture books that tap into our most extreme natures.  They tell us that even if the world around you is falling apart at the seams, isn’t it nice to know that after all is said and done, every mess will get cleaned up eventually?


About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I was thinking about just this sort of thing the other day–how for children books like this operate the same way detective novels do for older readers in that order is always reassuringly restored by the end. One of my favourites as a child was A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer and now reading the wiki I see that she was married to Dr. Seuss who gave her permission to use his original story however her little heart desired. Hmm. Another favourite was Sam and the Firefly by P.D. Eastman which also operates on that principle of escalating chaos. I wonder if that unleashed chaos is allowed as much in contemporary picture books–Stuck! by Oliver Jeffers comes to mind. Aspects of the Olivia stories. Searching for further examples.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Good point. This may explain why STUCK remains my favorite of the Jeffers oeuvre. Interesting that both Palmer’s FISH OUT OF WATER and SAM AND THE FIREFLY are both illustrated by P.D. Eastman. I didn’t mention it here but one of the greatest examples of chaos on the page is, without a doubt, the dog party at the end of GO DOG GO, which is also by Eastman. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that man does NOT get enough respect for the work he did over the years.

      • Yes, I was always much more of an Eastman fan than a Seuss fan as child and I think Go, Dog. Go! and Are You My Mother? must be permanently imprinted on my brain.

  2. Ah-maaaaa-zing! I must get my hands on A Day at the Fire Station!

  3. Laura Shovan says:

    Z Is for Moose by Kelly Bingham has the best chaos scene of the recent picture books I’ve read. The reaction on the (Q is for) queen’s face is perfect: she is not amused.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh yes. And it has the extra added benefit of a character screaming for order, which is a whole subset of children’s literature in and of itself (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland would apply here).

      As a kid I always related to those characters best. When asked which character on Sesame Street was my favorite, I would inevitably say Bert. I suspect I would have identified quite closely with that zebra as well.

  4. Reminds me of Rotten Island!

  5. Peter Newell’s Hole Book (1908) and Slant Book (1910) are gloriously chaotic with innovative book design to boot.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh, good call! Newell sort of invented the form (though I’d love for Leonard Marcus to weigh in and tell me otherwise).

  6. Eric Carpenter says:

    Rotten Island by William Steig has a bunch of spreads that depict total chaos. I especially like the “Battles raged. It was WAR!” spread.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh good. I wanted some Steig but couldn’t think of anything properly epic. Well played, sir. And well played Kate, who had the same idea!

  7. Greg Pizzoli’s GOOD NIGHT OWL is a pretty good recent example. Owl goes nuts and wrecks his entire house.

  8. Love this! One of my kids’ favorites was Frog Goes to Dinner by Mercer Mayer. There’s also Once Upon a Banana by Jennifer Armstrong and David Small. Gobs of ruckus!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh yes! I thought about mentioning ONCE UPON A BANANA since that has a nice early silent-film twist on the ruckus. Good call!

      Thinking I should do a follow-up post where I rank these.

  9. One of my all time favourites is ‘Angry Arthur’ by Hiawyn Oram, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura (Andersen Press 1981). It was Satoshi’s debut picture book, beautifully illustrating Hiawyn’s story of how little Arthur’s anger trashes first his room, then the house, the town, the earth and finally the universe, until all that’s left is Arthur drifting on his bed in the void. In the last picture he just tucks up into bed, having forgotten why he was so angry in the first place. Total chaos and sheer brilliance.

  10. As soon as I saw the title of this post all I could think about was “Oh, Were They Ever Happy” by Peter Spier. It will always be the epitome of picture book chaos to me.

    • Oh, I love this one too! I still remember giving it to a friend’s children and my mother muttering that it might give the kids ideas. I scrolled through the comments sure that someone must have mentioned it. It’s a delight, some of those pictures are imprinted forever.

  11. I so totally agree with this post. I love Richard Scary and I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More. Another recent book with chaos restored (although not as awesome as an entire jam truck) is Miranda Paul’s 12 Little Ninja’s. Thanks for starting this discussion.

  12. The Diggingest Dog! An entire city in shambles! One of my favorite reads growing up.

  13. I am convinced that The Man with the Yellow Hat is the most irresponsible pet owner ever. Constantly leaving his monkey unsupervised with open windows around. If you read any of the 80s books, he often up and disappears with no premise, just to return at the end. My favorite is the baseball one where he leaves his monkey alone in the crowded bleachers to go (as my husband pointed out) hit on Jimmy’s mom. I’m also surprised you didn’t address the 50s one (I forget which) where George is at the hospital and gets high on ether. Fun times, kids!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      I totally mentioned the ether! But it’s a one off. Unworthy of a true fiasco. CURIOUS GEORGE GETS A MEDAL also has a curious side mention of the fact that the next door neighbor lady cleans up after George when he fails to steal the pump. My thinking is that she’s trying to get it on with The Man with the Yellow Hat. Good luck with that one, honey.

  14. Stephanie Best says:

    Oops! by Arthur Geisert – spectacular chaos there! He gets pretty messy in Hogwash, too. What a fun concept to think about in picture books. Mild chaos also in It’s Only Stanley, Jon Agee; The Duchess Bakes a Cake, Virginia Kahl; and The Giant Jam Sandwich, John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway.

  15. Kristen Mohn says:

    Little Bo Peep and Her Bad Bad Sheep (A Mother Goose Hullabaloo) by Amber Ross is an adorably chaotic romp through nursery rhyme land. It has some retro Richard Scarry elements with lots for kids to feast their eyes on on every page and clever subplots happening in the text. Super cute and worth checking out!

  16. J. Caparas says:

    You said it already. Anything by David Catrow.