So what's going on with all the picture books for grown-ups these days? If I sound like Andy Rooney, I guess I mean to, because I have to say this particular trend brings out the curmudgeon at me.
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The big news in the children's-book world this summer was the release of Go the F**k to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach, with illustrations by Ricardo Cortés. It was the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon a month before it even existed officially, thanks to the viral spread of a PDF in the weeks before publication.
I never saw it. Its publisher, Akashic, realized that it didn't need formal reviews to sell, so they saved their pennies and chortled all the way to the bank. Also chuckling were Feiwel & Friends, who took the opportunity of the parody to promote It's Time to Sleep, My Love, by Eric Metaxas with illustrations by Nancy Tillman, a genuine (if sentimental) children’s book to which Mansbach’s opus bears a striking resemblance.
But although it was possibly the most spectacularly successful of its recent ilk, it was not the first of its kind. The fall of 2009 saw Where the Mild Things Are: A Very Meek Parody, by "Maurice Send-up" (haw, haw, get it?), and illustrated by Bonnie Leick. It sends a young monster named Mog, who is punished by his parents for petting a kitten, into Dullsville, which is peopled by Sendak-ian monsters that are recognizably real people: Jay Leno, Martha Stewart, Al Gore and Bill Gates. Ha. Ha. Ha.
"Shrill Travesty" followed up in 2010 with The Taking Tree: A Selfish Parody, with illustrations by Lucy Ruth Cummins. Spring of 2011 saw Pat the Zombie: A Cruel (Adult) Spoof, by Aaron Ximm, with illustrations by Kaveh Soofi.
(Note how so many of these titles seem to find it necessary to instruct readers that they're jokes. Who on Earth would imagine the reading public wouldn't be able to figure it out on their own?)
This fall sees at least two more entries into the burgeoning picture-books-for-adults market: the upcoming Goodnight iPad: A Parody for the Next Generation and the Star Trek Book of Opposites, which came out in September.
Goodnight iPad, by "Ann Droyd" (really David Milgrim, author-illustrator of many splendid children's books, including the sublime See Pip Point), has gotten a fair amount of advance buzz. It plays into our current obsession with/anxiety about the increasing pervasiveness of technology in our lives.
"In the bright buzzing room / There was an iPad / And a kid playing Doom / And a screensaver of— // A bird launching over the moon…" Eventually the "fed-up old woman / Who was trying to sleep" unplugs her family one by one ("Nooooooooo…" a pajama-clad little bunny wails as she wrests his iPad from his clutch) and chucks all the gadgets out the window. (An exterior view shows similar piles of electronics outside of other homes.)
The Star Trek Book of Opposites is published in board-book format and, like so many books for babies and toddlers, explores the concept of opposites. Kirk, Spock and McCoy stand on a classic fake-rock set above the word "appear"; on the opposite page, their outlines fade above the word "disappear"—Scotty is beaming them up. A little later, Kirk and Uhura enact what many claim was television's first interracial kiss (in "Plato's Stepchildren," third season) to demonstrate "apart" and "together." And so on.
Both books are undeniably funny, though the Star Trek one clearly aims at a more niche audience than Goodnight iPad. But even though I enjoy seeing how Milgrim plays with Margaret Wise Brown's sonorous language and Clement Hurd's gently surreal images, and even though I am something of a Trekkie, both books leave me cold.
Even when picture books are meant for them, not children, adults use them very differently from children. They see these gag books at the cash register, flip through them and chuckle, then, maybe, buy them. But what do they do with them when they get home? Maybe show them to a family member or a friend and get one more guffaw, but an adult will never love one of these picture books, however sophisticated, the way a child will. The joke apprehended, the book will be set aside, covered up and eventually discarded. It will not be read over and over till the pages are soft with use and the words committed to memory.
So what is the cost in resources natural and intellectual compared to the return? I have to wonder. Is a quick laugh really worth the trees, the ink, the energy, the talent?
I think not.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.