You know it when you see it. Two kids huddled over a picture book, grins widening, laughter erupting. Pure joy. How do we as illustrators create such moments of unbridled humor? The best way I know is to take a good look at what works on the page. Let’s dive into a few picture books that make us laugh.
For the youngest listeners who are just beginning to develop a sense of humor and learning what humor is, I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean by Kevin Sherry will speed them on their path.
It has everything a picture book needs, which explains why it’s a fixture in many early grade classrooms and libraries: A funny main character’s wrong-headed monolog to the reader that overlooks an obvious hard truth, page-turn momentum and irony that’s hard to miss.
If you get your copy from the library, as I did, you’ll probably find most of the pages repaired – all taped up – demonstrating how well-loved this book is by young readers.
The job of a picture book is to entertain at the simplest level. It must be comprehensible all the way through. By seeing what’s silly and funny in a book, kids can recognize these moments in real life, and vice versa. It also helps if the book is grounded in something or someone real.
Ask me what’s funny about an aggrieved sunflower seed, and I’ll respond by showing you The Bad Seed, by Jory John, illustrated by Pete Oswald.
We already know this grumpy little guy. His behavior didn’t come out of the blue. He has a back story, the gist of which we’ve seen before or can imagine. His trauma is simple. We can empathize.
But now comes the arc. As a self-aware young seed, he has a choice – to continue to act out or to grow. We know this transition to gentle kindness, but we’ve never seen it occur for a sunflower seed. Until now.
The panel sequences of My Teacher is a Monster by Peter Brown take us on a quick journey of transformation for Bobby and his classroom teacher, Ms. Kirby, the rough, green monster always on his case. Or so Bobby feels – until a chance out-of-class encounter pits them together and gives Bobby a chance to lend a helping hand. In the new circumstance, amid a lovely new park setting, with a hill and a duck pond, they come to see each other differently.
The chuckle-filled story packs a shocking truth punch. Teachers are human. So are rowdy little boys. And the power of humor can connect them. It’s like story-time in the classroom. For once in the day, the roles can blur a bit. The discipline can drop a little. The read-aloud can be a fun, loving respite for both parties enjoying a laugh together.
“I have all the books I need,” Bear tells Mouse, but he reluctantly joins his friend on an excursion to their local library. The humor lies in the story, certainly, but also in the physical gestures and attitudes of Bear, Mouse and the other animals who show up for story-time. Did watercolor illustrator Kady MacDonald Denton model Bear’s hammy, operatically melodramatic poses after loud comedian Jackie Gleason of the old The Honeymooners TV show? We’ll probably never know. But Bear’s transformation to enchanted, mild-mannered bookworm is irresistible.
Floyd can’t get his kite out of the tree. And despite Jeffers’ portrayal of him as almost a stick figure, Floyd’s frustration is palpable as he loses his shoes, his cat, a neighbor’s ladder in the same tree in his efforts to unstick his kite.
Of course, this is just the beginning of a terrible problem. By story’s end, a universe of things and creatures, big and small, enlisted to help in the freeing of the kite, are all imprisoned in the same tree. The humor lies in Jeffer’s deadpan, exaggerated treatment of all the props and characters of this nonsense tall tale. As a good artist would, Jeffers comes at them as blithe celebrations of color, shape, line, value, size, and texture. We’re so dazzled that, like the little boy Floyd, we forget about the big problem(s) left hanging in the branches, in his yard, for another day.
Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. The interval between bathtime and bedtime is when parents have the hardest time hanging on to their sense of humor. Harney feels their pain and offers a hilarious yet gentle peek at a papa and toddler negotiating those fraught minutes leading up to lights out.
Who knew a pair of child’s underwear could inspire so much stalling, so many silly role-playing shenanigans, or so many groaner rhymes? Baby bear feels free to cut loose and play hard because a patient parent makes him feel loved and safe. Harney’s bold lines and dynamic boxy shapes meet the kinetic page panels, dialogue bursts, and hyperactivity of a child for whom everything is a game.
Shared humor expresses a positive, happy relationship, the abstraction of play, and happiness in general. It makes kids feel loved. I remember one Christmas Eve, reading Olive, the Other Reindeer by Vivian Walsh, illustrated by J. otto Seibold with my young grandkids. We sat close to each other on the couch, laughing at the funny page turns, the silly premise and the text, the play on the pages. Mainly we were enjoying each other’s laughter. We were all in on the joke. There were no barriers between us.
There’s something sinister about the cows who discover the power of impersonal typed extortion notes. Farmer Brown has never experienced anything like this, and he’s totally bested by their initiative. Maybe extortion’s not the fair term. Maybe it’s the bovine version of good ol’ American collective bargaining. The cows see themselves as advocating – for themselves, the chickens, and all residents of the barnyard. Still a little disturbing. Where did they learn to gain the upper hand like that with technology? Betsy Lewin’s rollicking, rambunctious page spreads keep us laughing and glued to the drama.
For children who are kindergarten age, there’s so much still to learn about the world and how it’s funny, so many connections yet to make. But they’ll learn from each other and older kids and adults and teachers.
With books, they’ll learn not just from text, but from the pictures – the visual characters, the expressions on faces, and in their gestures. From the culture, they’ll learn how exaggeration, embellishment, out-of-placeness, and escalation can be funny, and that humor has a basis in pain, but also in truth and in notions of right and wrong and justice.
T is for Terrible by Peter McCarty combines exquisite artistry and visual characterizations to give us a story from the point of view of a self-deluded dinosaur. “I don’t know why I am so terrible…” Yeah, right, buddy. We’re not fooled, not one bit.
No picture book soliloquy has finer, or more thunderous, images. The ironies are rich. The comic-role-playing opportunities are ginormous. Let’s play T-Rex!