The late, great author/illustrator James Marshall once said that comedy is tricky. “You can’t show how hard you work,” he told Anita Silvey. “You can’t show the wheels turning. It’s got to be like a balloon that floats up into the air.”
Two very funny new picture books—Michelle Knudsen’s Big Mean Mike, illustrated by Scott Magoon, and Aaron Reynolds’ Creepy Carrots!, illustrated by Peter Brown—bring us two pairs of author-illustrators who achieve this. They know how to get out of their own way already and tell a funny story.
And a large part of the humor here is bunnies. The cute and fluffy variety.
Read the last Seven Impossible Things on Philip Nel’s ‘Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss.’
Now, I’m currently co-authoring a book about the notion that children’s literature isn’t necessarily all cute, fluffy bunnies (and rainbows and unicorns and gumdrops). But, in this case, I wholeheartedly endorse these bunnies—and wittle evil carrots.
In Creepy Carrots!, Jasper Rabbit may be cute and fluffy, but he’s unrelenting in his carrot consumption. He’s constantly pulling them from the ground to snack on, as rabbits are wont to do. But these dastardly, anthropomorphized carrots will have none of it, and devise a plan to save themselves.
This involves stalking poor Jasper, who thinks he’s seeing things and, quite possibly, losing his mind.
With pencil drawings as his base, Brown brings us a mostly gray palette that parodies old black-and-white horror films—or perhaps Twilight Zone episodes. Everywhere he looks, Jasper thinks he sees the maniacal carrots (which, we come to learn, really are there). They stand out all the more on this stark palette, Brown having digitally added the splashes of orange. And their ability to hide in plain sight, taunting Jasper, is very funny stuff.
Am I surprised that one of my favorite picture book palettes this year involves only shades of gray and orange? Nope. ‘Cause Peter Brown is such a talented, innovative illustrator.
Reynolds, who knows how to build suspense, expertly paces the story, but I won’t tell you the ending and ruin the mystery for you. Just know there’s more to these carrots than meets the eye.
In Big Mean Mike, author Knudsen does not mince words: Mike is “the biggest, toughest dog in the whole neighborhood.” Magoon vividly brings this intimidating canine to life with his furrowed brow, silver-spiked black collar, pointy claws, combat boots and his obnoxious car. One thing Mike knows for sure is that anything cute definitely negates his hard-core image.
Cue the “tiny, fuzzy bunny,” who suddenly appears in the trunk of his car. Mike admits to himself that the creature is “very cute,” and with a look of guilt—turns out he’s a softie at heart—he ditches the bunny on the sidewalk. More fuzzy bunnies continue to appear, though. Big Mean Mike grudgingly takes them to the Monster Truck Show, worried about the damage to his reputation should he be seen. But when he finds himself enjoying their company, he has a change of heart.
Image schmimage. He yells at a gang of dogs who mock him, “I can hang out with whoever I want! I like these bunnies. They know how to have a good time. And they’re adorable. Any of you got a problem with that?”
Yes, they’re adorable, even when they’re growling at the other tough dogs. This is funny stuff: Both author and illustrator play with the paradox of the Chuck Norris-type falling for the balls of fluff. They play with the tension, too: Knudsen supplies Mike with plenty of random, angry “ARRGH!”s when things aren’t going his way, and the bunnies’ over-the-top cuteness make their “Grrrr”s even funnier.
Fierceness has never been so cute. And fluffy.
Julie Danielson (Jules) has, in her own words, conducted approximately eleventy billion interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books.