Double page spread art by Elise Gravel for The Cranky Ballerina

Humor is sneaky. One moment you’re completely composed, thinking deep thoughts about all those important subjects you think deep thoughts about. The next minute, your mouth is twitching, your shoulders are shaking, and that ill-timed gulp of milk is spewing out your nostrils. So heed this warning and push any and all beverages a safe distance away while we peruse these funny reads.

First up is Elise Gravel’s The Cranky Ballerina. Right away we discern that prickly Ada is no starry-eyed sugar plum fairy wanna-be. And no wonder! Her pink leotard is too tight. The tutu’s all scratchy. And just in case we’re a bit slow on the uptake, Ada proclaims that she hates ballet.

Gravel shows impeccable comic timing in her layouts. They burst with physical and emotional humor. Ada’s little chartreuse sidekick, a possible escapee from Gravel’s I Want a Monster book, plays the role of an earnest Greek chorus while trying to soften Ada’s more spectacular wipeouts. Pressured to perform a pirouette for the class, Ada reluctantly winds up on a left-hand page, teeters across the gutter, and careens her way toward the page turn with flapping arms. The next spread? Pure mayhem as ballet students fly like bowling pins after a strike.

Gravel wisely gives us a beat to behold the fallout. Then, after additional instruction, Ada’s teacher asks her to attempt another pirouette. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t go well. At least not for the sports center’s trashcan and Mr. Chop’s to-go cup of coffee.

An illustrator’s directional cues are important in picture books since these cues are the engine that drives readers through a book. Gravel masterfully uses direction as a design element in her action-packed spreads, pulling us left to right as chaos ensues along the way.

Like all good storytellers, Gravel saves a few satisfying surprises for the end, but the sweetest is seeing Ada smile at last.

Art by Julie Rowan-Zoch for Louis by Tom Lichtenheld

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It’s a rough life being someone’s beloved teddy bear. Louis, written by Tom Lichtenheld and illustrated by Julie Rowan-Zoch, exposes the many indignities that could drive a plush bear to yearn for escape.

Scene after scene shows Louis in the thick of it, as lunch for a dinosaur, an unwilling hankie for a snotty nose, and hung out to dry by his ears. Rowan-Zoch creates a strong visual character in Louis. His face and eyes are hilariously expressive, whether Louis is being squeezed too hard or left behind by accident on a city bus.

Rowan-Zoch used Procreate and an iPad to form bold, black outlines that simulate traditional drawing mediums like a thick stick of charcoal or pastel. Throughout the spreads, clever cropping simplifies and strengthens the scenes to what we really need to see. For example, showing only half of a bus or part of a clothesline, while leaving our imaginations to fill in the rest.

The spreads also build strong directional cues, similar to those of Gravel’s work. The arc of a bright red umbrella draws our eyes from the boy’s tender expression across the wide page to words hinting at Louis’s mixed feelings about leaving his family. Another layout’s horizontal motion takes our eyes across the table of a doll’s tea party with all the usual suspects to the grim bear, draped in beads and a flower headband. At his feet, a blue train choo-choos off the right-hand page.

By the night of the big escape, we readers are totally invested. Will Louis make the right choice and realize how good he has it? It’s not until the last page that we know for sure.

Art by Dav Pilkey for his series Dog Man

And now we turn to Dog Man, one of the most beloved comic graphic novel series of the elementary set (and their parents and grandparents). Rarely have evil robots, invisible spray and cloning devices been put to such hilarious use as in the capable hands of author/illustrator Dav Pilkey.

Dog Man debuted in 2016, propelled by an irresistible origin story: That George and Harold, the infamous protagonists of Pilkey’s prank-stuffed Captain Underpants universe, dusted off the old Dog Man comic books they created in kindergarten and made them way, way better.

The laughs come from every direction. There’s arch-villain Petey the cat, whose every nefarious scheme gets thwarted, often by him saying aloud what would really mess up his plan. Leading the good guys’ team is Dog Man, the half-human, half- canine policeman. Dog Man is lovable, full of ideas and ready to save the world, unless a squirrel distracts him or he spies a pile of dead fish and garbage ripe for rolling in.

The illustrations appear simple, just a few steps beyond stick figures. The Cat Jail and other key buildings are boxes with a label. Pilkey distills everything from the characters to the setting down to its dazzling essence, in one action-packed frame after another. He draws his shapes with the same medium-weight ink line, as you’d get from a speedball pen. Every scene is clear and comprehensible to young readers. Colorist Jose Garibaldi contributes a gorgeous palette of warm and cool tones that make each page pop.

Not that we stay on any page very long. Pilkey’s stories are addictive with compelling page turns. Kids and adults alike will zoom through the images, speech bubbles, thought bubbles, and third-person narrative phrases to see what happens next. As the plot deepens and Dog Man’s challenges grow ever more dire, only one thing is certain: There will be laughter and lots of it

Dav Pilkey shows and explains his work process in this priceless, short tutorial for Scholastic’s #TeachGraphixWeek.

For more picture books to make you laugh, check out last year’s post Don’t Laugh, with examples by Betsy Lewin, Peter McCarty, Peter Brown, Jenn Harney, Oliver Jeffers, Kevin Sherry, and Pete Oswald.

And for a great overview of what might make a picture book funny, watch the workshop video with author Cate Berry with the terrific reading list she provides here.