In 2010, Bruce Eric Kaplan, a New Yorker cartoonist, released his debut picture book called Monsters Eat Whiny Children. I wrote about it back then on my own site, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. I believe I used the phrase “funny as hell” to describe it. It’s dry-humored, possesses a subtle wit and is unabashedly quirky—though not quirky merely for the sake of being quirky, thank heavens.
These things define the kind of picture book I tend to love the most.
Kaplan is back again with another very funny story, this one called Cousin Irv from Mars, which he dedicates to “all of us who are from Mars.” Fist bump! It’s a story for the misfit in us all.
One day, young Teddy’s mother announces that her cousin Irv will be visiting. He is literally from Mars and shows up a few days later in his spaceship. He might be an alien, but he’s no different than your most irritating great aunt or frustrating in-law who visits: cranky, miserable and demanding. In fact, the first thing he tells Teddy’s mother is that she gave him the worst directions, to which she replies, “No, I didn’t. You wrote them down wrong.” “I forgive you,” he grunts.
Teddy is stuck with Irv as a roommate during his stay. (“There’s nothing worse than having someone stay with you, especially when they put that someone in your room.”) And Irv is the nightmare guest at first—he eats everything in the kitchen, including chunks from the countertops; he breathes loudly when he sleeps; and he listens to horrible music—but Teddy’s feelings eventually shift. That happens on the day Irv takes Teddy to school and, in an effort to make poor Teddy popular, vaporizes the teacher with an electromagnetic ray.
To give you a sense of Kaplan’s artistic style, there’s ample white space on each spread, populated with very spare, loose-lined illustrations and occasionally askew compositions. The busiest, most complicated illustration is probably on the title page, and things get even more austere from there. The illustrations are just as wry and understated as the humor.
What I love most and find so funny about this book, as well as Monsters Eat Whiny Children, are Kaplan’s perfectly-placed declarations on the eccentricities of relationships—in this case, the familial, visitor-and-guest relationship—and life in general. For one, when Teddy complains to his mother about their visitor, she simply announces that “people [need] to get along with their distant cousins from Mars.” Later, Teddy declares, life “would be so much easier if we all listened to the same music.” Let’s not forget that life might be altogether more interesting if we could have “special party food” but without the parties. (This is so true, especially for ragingly awkward family parties during which Teddy likes to hide in the coats on the coat rack.)
Most of these declarations are also the types of details to which children attend, yet most adults have altogether forgotten, perhaps too jaded to remember the specificities of childhood. In one spread, Teddy is realizing what he likes about Irv. Cousin Irv, you see, understands how important it is to “keep piles of things you never [need] in places you never [look],” the illustration depicting a stack of clutter in boxes, the type of thing most parents would want to straighten. When Teddy’s parents aren’t around, he and Irv also touch everything on Mom and Dad’s desk: “There is nothing more wonderful than touching something you’re not supposed to touch.”
And, getting right to the heart of the tale, the boy also realizes that, if we only see what we don’t like about someone, we never see what we do like about them. This is followed by: “[W]e all know, or should know if we weren’t always forgetting, accepting things is the only way to be happy.”
But, lest you think Kaplan is wrapping up the story with a Hallmark-esque moral (which he’d never do anyway), he throws in some more observant humor about life’s awkward moments: When Irv has to leave (he just doesn’t like the coffee on Earth, for one), he and the family make a reluctant goodbye, only to find that his saucer won’t start. Everyone has to wait while it’s repaired, Kaplan leaving us with one final, laugh-aloud observation: “There is nothing more awkward than having to see someone after you’ve already said good-bye to them.”
I love Kaplan’s off-center humor, and I hope he keeps making picture books.
COUSIN IRV FROM MARS. Copyright © 2013 by Bruce Eric Kaplan. Published by Simon & Schuster, New York. Illustration used with permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.