I thought I’d check in quickly this week to add to the ever-growing list of Slightly Demented Picture Books. Some of you may remember that librarian and blogger extraordinaire Adrienne Furness and I discussed our favorite slightly demented titles back in April of 2008, and I’m always happy when I see titles to mentally add to the list. (For the record, I’m speaking for myself here. For all I know, Adrienne may not care for these titles. I’ll just have to ask her, won’t I? Any excuse to talk to Adrienne.) 2010 brings us a couple I want to feature today. I’m talkin’ the wickedly funny, the mighty irreverent, the subversive little gems that surprise you. Sure, there’s a place for The Sweet and the Cute, but you all know I have a big, cushiony, pillowy, feathery soft spot in my heart for the subversive little gems, too.
Bruce Eric Kaplan, cartoonist for the New Yorker, has brought us his first children’s title, Monsters Eat Whiny Children (to be released at the end of this month from Simon & Schuster). Needless to say, I immediately fell in love with the book’s title. This is a cautionary tale (of sorts — I love how, at the end, Kaplan reminds us that, “to tell you the truth,” the children forgot their Lesson Learned and whined just a little bit every now and then). But I’m getting ahead a bit. Let’s back up a little…
“Once there were two perfectly delightful children who were going through a TERRIBLE phase, which is to say they whined ALL day and night,” the book opens. Though their “kindly father” warns them that monsters eat whiny children, they forge ahead with their great and terrible whining, until…
And what does he do? He begins to make a whiny-child salad. Of course, Henry doesn’t like sitting on lettuce, and Eve whines, “No wooden bowl.” And the best line in a book full of many funny one-liners? The monster calls in his wife, who samples the dressing, spits it out, and screams, “I hate cilantro!”
This book is funny as hell. The annoying monster-neighbor comes over and tries to take charge. But chaos ensues, essentially due to all the various neuroses of the monsters — very human-like, indeed. The neighbor’s cousin gets so frustrated at being unable to light the grill for whiny-child burgers that he kicks a hole in the fence, and the monster’s wife, very much in charge, says a whiny-child cake is out of the question, since her bottom is too big. (”Besides, I hate baking,” she says.) And so on.
They even consider a “whiny-child vindaloo,” but sometimes “it’s hard to figure out if you’re in the mood for Indian food” (the book’s Second Best Line). It’s like dinner in many privileged contemporary American homes on some days: They’re having a very difficult time determining simply what to make. In the meantime, the children play with toys, and the monster’s aunt, “angry at the world as she always was,” shows up to yell at everyone. When she spits at them (both figuratively and literally) that they simply should make a whiny-child cucumber sandwich, they jump with joy. “It’s such a relief to finally figure out what the right thing to eat is” (the book’s Third Best Line).
And, while they argue over whether to use “healthy twelve-grain bread” or “fluffy white,” the children escape. Observant readers will notice they’re not even hightailing it out the door. No tear-assin’ away in fear is necessary: They’re slowly walking away, hand-in-hand, since the monster clan is too busy arguing to really even notice. And the monsters all sit down for their cucumber sandwiches, sans whiny children, and—since this is a cautionary tale—the kids never whine again, once they get safely home. Except for, as mentioned earlier, occasionally. When they forget. As we privileged folks are wont to do. But, hey, so are the monsters!
Publishers Weekly writes, “New Yorker cartoonist Kaplan adds only the subtlest color washes to his blank-eyed figures, framed inside black lines, serving the snarky text with a pinch of Shel Silverstein and plenty of bourgeoisie irony.” Now, I ask you, dear readers: How often do you get a little bit of bourgeoisie irony in your picture books? Now you know you wanna see it.
In the realm of children’s books, if (by chance) your eyes are slowly closing and your head is starting to drop from ennui, fear not: There’s always Lane Smith to come along and make you snap to. If you’re an illustration junkie, as I am, that snapping-to is all on account of his sleek art work and the ever-so stylish design of Molly Leach. If your breath doesn’t necessarily get taken away by good illustration, there’s always his subversive humor. (This is the funniest book I’ve seen all year, though I can say with confidence I won’t be seeing it in any school libraries here in the South.)
Fellow Picture Books Nerds have likely already heard about this book’s premise, involving a jackass and a monkey, and its wickedy whack ending. (Did I actually just type “wickedy whack”? Okay. Fine. I’m really not 18 years old, despite how it might sound. Or, you know, we can just pretend I am. This is the internet, after all.) If not, I can’t bring myself to tell you the book’s last line, as I’d like for you to experience That Moment without me having ruined the surprise for you. Is it for everyone? Nope. Is it for all kids? Nope again. Lane’s books have never been middle-of-the-road readers meant for everyone. What it is, though, is a picture book constructed entirely around a tongue-in-cheek gag. The entire thing is one big rim shot. It’s the picture-book equivalent of this, which, yes, I just lifted straight from the Web, and I’m not sure whom to credit for the image, so please, dear readers, will you bring me some some snacks during visiting hours in cyber-jail? Some fruit might be good. Throw in some Cheez-Its for good measure. (And will I be in jail even longer for not putting “®” after “Cheez-Its”? I guess time will tell.)
Right. So, yes. It’s A Book is the picture-book equivalent, as I said, of this:
The book will shock some, but that is what good comedy does. (Well, depending on your sense of humor, but analyzing humor is inherently anti-funny, so let’s move on.)
You all know this is the place for geeking out over illustration. School Library Journal beat me to it when they wrote that Smith achieves “economy and elegance on each page,” adding that it’s a “clever choice for readers, young and old, who love a good joke and admire the picture book’s ability to embody in 32 stills the action of the cinema.” Indeed, I watch Lane’s movies, to follow the reviewer’s analogy there, with great interest and marvel at how each successive book gets even…um…eleganter. (It’s still early for me, folks. Quite clearly, as evidenced by the incessant rambling in this post, more of the sweet black lifeblood that is coffee is needed here.) More elegant (that’s better), that is, in terms of line and composition. And design, Molly’s doing.
Now, for you fellow illustration nerds—and for those wondering what-in-the-what-the this book is even about (which I realize I haven’t noted yet)—I point you to this post over at Lane’s blog (from which I lifted part of this post’s title*), which covers the basic plot, as well as illustrator fun facts via Ms. Leach, such as How Foreheads Bring Out the Maternal Instinct in the Reader. (WHO KNEW?) And such. So, shoo. Go on over and read, and I’ll be here when you return. I’m true blue like that.
Welcome back! That was a fun post to read, yes? Back here at 7-Imp this morning, Lane is also sharing some early art, not yet posted at his site. So, I’m signing off with these early (and finished) images, and I thank Lane for sharing…
First off, we have a spread from the first dummy, which featured a child instead of a monkey and a jackass. (You read at the afore-linked Lane-post why he decided to ditch the kid, right?)
(Click to enlarge.)
(Click to enlarge.)
Like this monkey…”
(Click to enlarge.)
This is what the art looks like before I apply the color.”
* Now, the alternate title for this post, which sprung from a conversation with my esteemed and also wickedly funny co-author, Peter D. Sieruta, was “This Goes Out to All You Jackassers in Jackass Flats, Nevada,” since Peter pointed out to me that there are several places out west with the word “Jackass” in their name: Jackass Flats, Nevada; Jackass Butte, Washington; and Jackass Acres, Arizona, the former being the home of BREN Tower, the world’s tallest tower for scientific research. WHO KNEW? again! No Jackassers-from-Jackass-Flats-Nevada’s feelings were hurt during the creation of this post. (I hope.)
See? I really think I might be 18 years old anyway.
Illustrations from MONSTERS EAT WHINY CHILDREN © 2010 by Bruce Eric Kaplan. Used with the permission of Simon & Schuster.
All Lane-Smith art work used with permission of Lane Smith © 2010 and all rights reserved and all that good stuff.