When you see as many picture books as I do in a given month, it’s always refreshing to see the oddball ones, those that aren’t riding on the same plot that a majority of picture books rely upon over and over again. I still remember, back in 2012, an interview I did here at Kirkus with author Mac Barnett and how he said:
“The same plots get trotted out. Great ideas are shaved and sanded down until they look a lot like a lot of other things on the bookshelf. I like strange stories, shaggy stories, stories with knobby bits and gristle and surprises.”
Shaggy stories. I’m doing jazz hands and spirit fingers at the very thought.
This week, I’m thinking about four of these left-of-center books. They are each a breath of fresh air, yet none of them are trying entirely too hard to be clever (which is just never, ever good to see) and none of them sacrifice good solid storytelling for Weirdness for the Sake of It.
Since we’re already on the subject of Mr. Barnett, let’s start with his newest picture book, The Skunk. It tells the story, illustrated with great flair and humor by Patrick McDonnell, of a man who is followed by a skunk until, one day, he finds himself stalking the creature himself. The Kirkus review for the book describes it as “[p]eculiar, perplexing, and persistent—training wheels for Samuel Beckett.” (I love that Beckett bit so much. High-five to the reviewer, whoever he or she may be.) The reviewer also writes that adults will “turn themselves inside out trying to figure it out; kids will either find the whole idea hysterical or just plain befuddling.” I say this is a very good thing for both adults and children alike (especially for adults). There’s a lot to think about in the story, a delicious, mind-bending mystery. What is the skunk’s motivation? That’s up to readers, as it’s a book that leaves a lot of room for us to ponder the more bizarre, cyclical patterns of life, and it’s one that increasingly endears itself to me each time I read it. I won’t say any more than this: find a copy and read it. And then come back and tell me what you think. (I’ll also add: the book includes the year’s Best Endpapers thus far.)
Sara Pennypacker’s Meet the Dullards is a book that could have easily turned into a ham-handed lesson for children on “being yourself,” but thank goodness it’s not. This droll story (we owe a large part of the droll to the offbeat illustrations of Daniel Salmieri) of two excessively mediocre parents who want only the most mediocre lives for their children is social commentary at its most entertaining. No books for these children. Only blank paper is best. No chunky applesauce. Chunks are nerve-wracking. The spread of Mr. and Mrs. Dullard nearly fainting at the flowered wallpaper in their new home—they prefer only gray or beige, even though gray is risky in that it’s “the color of highways, and highways could make the children think about going somewhere”—is comedy gold. The Dullard children, Blanda, Borely, and Little Dud, manage to escape, but the parents successfully snag them and bring them back home. In the end, Mr. and Mrs. Dullard fall asleep, “secure in the knowledge that their children were perfect bores.”
Ahem. That’s what they think. On the final page, readers see the children have snuck off to the circus for a bit of adventure. Whew. The story of a demand for conformity on spreads employing a mostly gray palette was never so fun.
For even more absurdity, check out Charlotte Voake’s Melissa’s Octopus and Other Unsuitable Pets. Voake is one of my all-time favorite author-illustrators; she crafts stories that really get children, and I love to see her pen and watercolor illustrations. Though the market is flooded with pet books, this one stands out for its delightfully ridiculous choices: Melissa, as the title tells you, has an octopus; Arthur, a warthog; Caroline, a giraffe; and so on. Most of the animals make a merry kind of mischief, but the book’s biggest kick is at the end, when we meet Kevin and Bertrand’s new pet crocodile—who ultimately eats all the children up and in the midst of their tea party, no less. PSYCHE. Well, after all, a crocodile “really is…the MOST UNSUITABLE PET OF ALL!”
Last but not least—and speaking of those picture-book protagonists who are out to devour humans—there is the French import, I am the Wolf … And Here I Come! from Bénédicte Guettier. This is a vertically oriented board book for young children, and it’s quite the experience. Children meet the “big bad wolf” on the first spread, and they read with each page turn all about him getting dressed. (The heart-spotted boxer shorts are pretty funny.) Ultimately, he’s standing there in his hat, his “great big coat,” and his clunky boots—and he has a mouth-watering grin on his face, his sharp fangs protruding. It’s so over-the-top that it manages to be more funny than scary, though readers are prompted (on the back cover) to “snap the book shut to keep the wolf inside.”After all, he declares on the last page that he’s “coming to get you!” I’ve seen the book read aloud in this snap-happy way (at my book club, where we read children’s literature, don’t you know), and it is great fun. Don’t be alarmed by the wolf—snapping the book shut will keep him at bay—and don’t be surprised if young children ask for repeated readings.
Here’s to the unexpected….
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.