Want to know the funniest picture book you’ll see this year? Hoo boy, bold statement, I know, but I stand by it. It’s Bob Shea’s Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great, and it will be released at the end of this month. Don’t just take my word for it. The official Kirkus review, a starred one, describes it as “brilliant in execution” with “hysterical” dialogue. It’s true. Those Kirkus reviewers don’t mess around, you know.
I don’t even want to tell you too much about it, given that I wouldn’t want to ruin any of the jokes or taint your reading experience when you get your hands on a copy (not to mention Bob talks about it below). But let’s just say there’s a dejected goat, cupcakes falling from the sky, some glitter, some rainbows and some serious cloven justice. This is all brought to us by Shea’s clever wit and refusal to ever talk down to children, one of many things I love about his writing and illustrations.
Earlier this year, Shea brought readers Cheetah Can’t Lose, which Kirkus also gave a starred review. Both of these stories deal, essentially, with self-esteem, so I thought I’d check in with Bob to see if his is okay. I also wanted to know what’s next on his plate.
I seem to remember an older YouTube video where you talk about the characters of Goat and Unicorn. Is the story older than I think? What has been its road to publication?
The YouTube clip is actually a different unicorn story. Totally unrelated.
That’s an unpublished story called Randy the Lonely Unicorn. It’s about a unicorn who is tormented by jealous, nonmagical animals and a friendless little girl tormented by her vile, nonmagical brother.
It’s about friendship, suffering, beauty, revenge and alphabetical love.
McSweeney’s asked me to write some Unicorn lists awhile back too.
Seems I’m a bit of a one-trick magic pony.
Oh, so Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. Right. This story is about an average goat trying his best to stand out from the crowd. He’s making a pretty good go of it until the new kid moves in. A unicorn. Hard to compete with the magical kid who flies and makes it rain cupcakes.
I remember grade school (and now, this very second) trying to differentiate myself. There’s always someone who is effortlessly better than you at everything you try. I’m talking to you, Klassen.
There’s this house in my town with a yard full of goats. I’d see them and think, “Look at those wretched monsters. They’re the worst.”
“Like me!” I thought.
Their lives must reflect my grade school/current experience, right? How hard must it be for a goat to be special? So hideous and unfortunate.
It must be extra hard with a beloved unicorn around.
So, I sketched out the story and sent it to my editor at Hyperion, Stephanie Lurie. She acquired it pretty quickly. (She likes playing fast and loose with her career.) Her only note was, “Maybe the unicorn is not so big an imbecile.”
Then it was put off for a year. Scheduling conflict—or I forgot to draw it. Can’t remember.
I think Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great is exceptionally funny. When you're working in humor, do the book's jokes generally flow from you, or do you find yourself rotating through different jokes/gags, trying different ones out? (Er, sorry, nothing kills humor more than analyzing it, but I'm just curious.)
All day long I walk around, pitying goats and thinking of funny things for whatever story I am working on. Hands shoved in my pockets, mindlessly giggling. I’m definitely the “insane, probably harmless, jobless guy” in town. It’s very entertaining/annoying, depending on if you are me or are married to me.
The story is the boss, though. I come up with a ton of funny little bits or exchanges that never make the final cut.
For the record, talking about being funny makes me uneasy.
Anything in particular inspire Cheetah's story?
Cheetah Can’t Lose is about an arrogant cheetah who wins every race he runs against the same two little cats. Blinded by hubris, Cheetah is easily tricked by the clever cats. They load him up with pie and ice cream, bind his feet with boxes, burden him with balloons, and blind him with a giant crown—making it impossible for Cheetah to win. The cats realize winning isn’t everything, and their jerky friend is still their friend.
This story came from watching my son and his friends interact. At a young age, kids emerge who are “the best”—kids who are not shy about telling you how good they are at everything and rattling off their accomplishments.
“So? I drive a car,” I say.
These lil’ blowhards are hilarious. Besides, we all know humility is for losers, right?
They’re not bad kids or bad friends. They’re just reflecting what other kids and their parents tell them. They just haven’t learned to filter themselves.
What's next for you?
Next up is a picture book from Hyperion, called Buddy and the Bunnies in: Don’t Play with Your Food. It comes out January 2014. It’s about a goofy monster who tries and tries to eat some bunnies, but they always talk him out of it. Probably my most absurd book so far.
As the story progresses, there are more and more bunnies on every spread. It’s the weirdest thing.
Oh wait, now I get it.
UNICORN THINKS HE’S PRETTY GREAT. Copyright © 2013 by Bob Shea. Published by Disney/Hyperion, New York. Illustration used with permission of Bob Shea.
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.