Through his work as a children’s magician, volunteering as a performer at children’s hospitals and charities, Len Foley of Los Angeles, California, has learned what kids find funny. The results appear in his recent self-illustrated picture book, Four Funny Potatoes. “You could literally bring David Copperfield out and have this amazing illusion,” Foley says. “Kids don’t care about that kind of stuff. They like to goof around and have a good time, and they especially like to see an adult mess up and in trouble.”
That’s the impulse behind the humor in Four Funny Potatoes, which Kirkus Reviews calls “genuinely funny.” Arnie the dancing potato, funny pants–wearing Jimmy, and juggling Marvin all expect Benny to jump right in to the four-potato performance. But Benny refuses on the grounds that he’s a banana:
How many times do I need to say?? / I am not a potato in any way!! / I am long and skinny, not pudgy and round... / My body is shiny and yellow, not lumpy and brown.
The string bean director throws a fit, demanding that Benny admit he’s a potato—or, at least, a yellow zucchini. Young readers who love to laugh at mistakes—especially when they’re in the know about what’s really going on—are sure to giggle at the hapless potatoes and bossy bean and cheer when a human acknowledges Benny’s true identity (even though the poor banana gets eaten in the end).
Foley is no stranger to figuring out what makes kids laugh. His daughter, now 7, is his own live-in critic. “From age 2, she’d want to read several books” at bedtime, Foley recalls. “You can’t pick up a 40-page book and start thinking you’ll get through three of them.” Foley wanted to give her the sense of accomplishment that comes from starting and finishing something, so he would gravitate toward shorter books—and when he began writing his own, he kept them concise.
Foley also benefits from being a compulsive doodler. “I’ve been doodling my whole life, but when I sit down to draw something that I want to use—put into a frame or give to somebody—it always gets very messy,” he explains. “I hate making messes and having to clean up after my messes.” Using an iPad to create digital art made it possible for him to turn his doodles into art without making a mess or turning his garage into an art studio.
The wacky cartoon-photo hybrid illustrations in his picture books, including Four Funny Potatoes, which features real fruits and vegetables with faces and hair drawn on them, must pass his daughter’s humor test. “I know the kinds of things she laughs at, so I would draw pictures of them,” he says. “I wouldn’t even ask her, ‘What do you think? Is this funny?’ If I showed it to her and she laughed, then that was the picture.” Foley appreciates that kind of childhood honesty. “Kids can’t hide their opinions to make you feel good,” he points out. “Either they laugh and think it’s funny or interesting or they just don’t.”
Foley has used his daughter’s friends and classmates as test audiences for early drafts of his books, like his debut, Sigfried’s Smelly Socks. Those test audiences are part of why gross-out humor finds its way into Foley’s pages—whether that involves smelly socks, a frog swimming in a toilet (I’m Swimming in the Toilet... Please Don’t Flush!), or a finally-correctly-identified banana being eaten at the end of its book. He’s not worried about whether parents will be as amused as their children, however. “In the one sense, you have to ingratiate yourself to the parents,” he admits. He decided to win over parents by “making the kids really like the book and not writing for the parents at all....They’re the ones who are going to be telling their parents if they want to read it again and again.”
He applies a lot of the same tips he uses when performing his magic shows: He never patronizes his audience, and he constantly finds ways to draw their attention. In the case of Four Funny Potatoes, he created a bossy string bean reminiscent of adults who too frequently correct kids—even when the kids know they’re right. “Kids are always being told what to do,” Foley says. “They’re always in trouble when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing….So whenever they see an adult mess something up...when they see a mistake being made in the world and it’s not them making the mistake, it’s the funniest thing ever.” Foley’s magic shows frequently consist of him making one mistake after another to delight his young audience, and it works equally well on the printed page.
Given Foley’s comfort as a performer and a writer and illustrator, it’s unsurprising that he’s found a way for both worlds to meet. He’s very interested in creating videos that adapt or tie into his picture books, in part because of the frequent sharing of videos on social media. The official video for I’m Swimming in the Toilet...Please Don’t Flush is his first to debut. He teamed up with Neesin Williams, a musician who works at the coffee shop Foley owns, to create a music video that features a toilet-swimming frog accompanied by saxophone- and tambourine-playing potatoes. The video was created before the picture book of the same title. Foley worked with an animator to rig up the characters to move them through the video.
Readers can expect to continue to see more transmedia projects from Foley as well as additional upcoming print projects, including Five Little Monkeys Jumping on Fred, a spinoff on the traditional children’s rhyme that involves Fred the rhinoceros defending his home from an animal invasion, and Santa’s Smelly Socks, which returns to the theme of Foley’s first book and uncovers the secret history of the Christmas stocking. Capturing the giggles of young readers may seem a little bit like working magic—for Foley, it is.
Alana Joli Abbott writes about pop culture, fantasy and science fiction, and children’s books, which she reviews with the help of her kids.