E. B. White once said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it." Truer words were never spoken. I’ve got two brand-new funny picture books on the mind today, but in E. B.’s honor, I will not analyze them too deeply. All frogs are safe here.
First up is Floaty, which has humor and heart. This new picture book comes from John Himmelman, who has made a career (more than 75 children’s books now) of funny stories. This is the tale of a misanthropic old man, named Mr. Raisin. He lives alone, he keeps to himself, and he spends his days sewing. When a basket is left at his front door, with a good-luck note announcing that what’s inside is “too much trouble,” he finds himself in the presence of a floating dog.
Let us take a moment to appreciate the delicious absurdity here. Never is the reader given an explanation as to why the dog floats or how the dog floats, but we don’t need that information. It’s enough to know that the poor pup can’t win his war with gravity and is constantly stuck to the ceiling (that is, if he’s indoors – being outside results in all new dilemmas). When he’s in the air, he often defaults to the fetal position, yet he seems to take it in stride (though, sadly, not literally). Mr. Raisin, who says “blah” a lot, on account of his great propensity for grumpiness, isn’t fired up about keeping the dog, but he knows he’ll “just float away” if he puts him outside. He may be a hermit, but he does have a heart.
Let’s take another moment to appreciate that Mr. Raisin names him “Floaty.” I love this. It brings to my mind the manner in which most children name their pets. Often in children’s books, authors will have children give their pets outlandish, often cloying, names. But when my oldest daughter was preschool-aged, she had a green and purple plush dinosaur that she named … wait for it … Green-and-Purple. Similarly, Mr. Raisin cannot be bothered with a ridiculously long name. “Floaty” gets the job done.
Floaty and Mr. Raisin bond, their life together laid out in bright, expressive cartoon art. If you guess that Floaty accidentally floats away on a walk one day, you’d be right. (Blah.) And if you guess that they reunite in the end, you’d also be right. (Yay!) Everything that happens in between manages to be both funny—the spread where Mr. Raisin gives Floaty some water by just aiming the water hose in his direction, as he floats in the corner of a room, made me laugh out loud—and touching, such as the moment when the old man watches the dog float away, his head in his hands. “As Floaty, disappeared into the clouds,” Himmelman writes, “Mr. Raisin realized how much he loved his dog.”
But Mr. Raisin doesn’t give up, and his sewing skills even play a significant part in his reunion with the pet he loves. Nothing blah about that at all.
Next up is Marianna Coppo’s Petra, originally published in Italy two years ago, which charms with an understated humor. “Nothing can move me,” says the rock-like narrator on page one. It figures it is a “fearsome, fearless, mighty, magnificent mountain!” Grasses grow around it on one spread; clouds float over it in another; it towers over dinosaurs in the next; and houses are built on top of it.
But, wait. In the next spread, the perspective shifts: A stick flies over it, and then a large dog appears. Could this be merely a tiny rock? The dog even takes the thing in its mouth, delivering it to a boy, who asks, “Is that a pebble?” Eventually, the thing ends up in a nest, reasoning it must be an egg. When a mama bird flings it from the nest, it lands in water and assumes it’s an island. “What a cool rock!” says a child who retrieves it. When it ends up in the hands of a girl, she paints an elephant on it, and simultaneously its identity is made clear (“I am a rock”), while it also acknowledges the possibility it could change yet again tomorrow. “Who knows?” it asks. The translators get extra points for closing the story with its rimshot ending: “I’m a rock,” it declares, “and this is how I roll.”
Lately, I’ve seen a handful of picture books for young children about acceptance and identity. There’s Airlie Anderson’s Neither, for instance, which the Kirkus review notes is an overt “celebration of nonbinary identities.” Petra takes this a step further, with playfulness, prompting children to think about the nature of identity and self-affirmation—and how those things might be related to self-assurance.
And it’s darkly funny in spots. The defeated, frustrated look on the face of the rock, as it’s carried in the boy’s pocket at the end, is comedy gold. This is Coppo’s picture book debut, and she does a lot with a minimal canvas and simple shapes.
A floating dog and a rock having an identity crisis—and no dissected frogs. Two books for the funny bones. The children you know will thank you.
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.
PETRA. Text and illustrations copyright © 2018 by Marianna Coppo. Originally published in 2016 by Edizioni Lapis, Rome, Italy. This edition published in 2018 by Tundra Books. Illustration used by their permission.
FLOATY. Copyright © 2018 by John Himmelman. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher, Henry Holt and Company, New York.