Getting By With a Little Help From Your Friend . . .

h1 October 9th, 2007 by jules

Cowboy & Octopus
by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
Viking Juvenile
September 2007
(review copy)

Start trying to analyze the humor in a book — or even sometimes why you think it succeeds to make you laugh in the first place — and you’ll, likely, bore the pants off your blog readers. Suffice it to say, then, that Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s latest creation, Cowboy & Octopus, has the type of extremely droll humor that makes me laugh with an annoying, unrestrained glee. And will seven-year-olds do the same? Hoo boy, you betcha they will. These seven very short stories of an unforgettable duo really nail that rather elusive, dry humor of both early- and late-elementary students (dang, as Cowboy might say, even early middle schoolers).

On the title page spread, we see right away why it is that the stances, body language, and facial expressions of both Cowboy and Octopus never change throughout the book: There lies a pair of child’s scissors; a bound collection of paper-doll cut-outs, entitled Western Heroes Vol II; and a comic book, sitting open, with a panel of an octopus, exclaiming “AHOY!!” . . . but that octopus has been removed from the book with those scissors, too. Our heroic duo have been plucked from their respective paper homes and have been made the characters in their own adventures, at the hands of a scissors-happy child (whom you never see), ready to storytell. Even the fact that their stances never change, particularly Cowboy’s, makes me laugh (there he is, all stiff-legged on a seesaw in his cowboy hat and fringed cowboy shirt and handkerchief-’round-his-neck, with his hand extended, saying “YEE-HAW!” with that static smile — but there he is doing the same thing on every other page. Visit the duo’s blog to see what I mean). This book is just funny as hell.

In the first story, “Cowboy Meets Octopus,” Cowboy — staring at the aforementioned seesaw — exclaims, “This dang thing is always broke” (okay, see? I’m laughing again). It takes Octopus to explain to him that . . . well, it takes two to make such a contraption work: “Some things work better with a friend” the story tells us in the end, in the form of a very James-Marshall-George-and-Martha type of didacticism that is never too much and is balanced by the wry humor of the tales. And then comes the bit of seven-year-old humor that makes the seven-year-old in me laugh like a loud, braying barnyard animal:

“You wanna be friends?” says Cowboy.

“Certainly,” says Octopus.

So Cowboy and Octopus shake hands . . .
and shake hands, and shake hands,
and shake hands, and shake hands,
and shake hands, and shake hands,
and shake hands.

If you, as an adult, think that’s a bit much, trust me: You need to kid-test it. The humor will fly and fly far. And, while we’re at it, I have to share Elizabeth Ward’s thoughts in her review of the book in The Washington Post. In commenting upon the odd friendship of, well, a dude and an octopod with sucker-bearing arms who normally lives at the bottom of the sea, she writes:

Not that kids will think a cowboy befriending an octopus is odd. That’s the way they play. (When my two sons were small, they once stopped me from throwing out a broken Transformer, saying they were using it as a penguin).

Heh. It’s true.

Onward then . . . So, yes, after they octo-shake on it, they’re off. They’re tight. They’re friends forever — and on six more high-flying adventures: Octopus needs some help and asks Cowboy to hammer in the toy boat he’s trying to fix (“Sounds loco to me,” he tells Octopus, as he misunderstands and thinks Octopus wants to pound him on the head); Cowboy surprises Octopus for dinner with “Beans and Bacon, Bacon and Beans, and just plain beans . . . with a little bit of bacon,” the dilemma for Octopus being that he hates both bacon and beans, but “he does like it that Cowboy has worked so hard just for him” (a very George-and-Martha-split-pea-soup moment. The final story, “That’s the Truth,” echoes that same Marshall story as well. As the Sicilian proverb says, “only your real friends tell you when your face is dirty” — or, uh, when your new hat “looks like something my horse dropped behind him”); Octopus tries in vain to tell a knock-knock joke to Cowboy (“Knock-Knock!” “Ain’t nobody there!” — see? I’m guffawing again), eventually managing to find humor with his friend anyway (hey, a lettuce knocking on a door is pretty dang funny); and more. And you simply can’t miss Octopus’ terrifying Tooth Fairy get-up in the story “Very Scary.”

The illustrations are an appropriately screwball mish-mash of media. A visual feast it is. I like how Mark David Bradshaw puts it at “Each page is constructed like a collaged wonderland of paper cut-outs, decals, cartoon clippings, comic book special-effect symbols, and ransom-note letters. Cowboy and Octopus are always in the same cleverly disguised poses because they, too, are retro-styled paper dolls. Adults will enjoy the ingenuity of it all, and kids will have fun spotting the repeated images. Everyone wins!”

As Ms. Ward said in the afore-linked review, “If there is a more inventive duo at work in the picture-book field than Scieszka and Smith . . . I can’t name it.” In the words of Cowboy, “that’s the truth.” Though they walk off in the sunset on the book’s final spread with an “Adios amigos,” I hope we get the chance to read more of their adventures in the future.

* * * * * * *

Here’s their YouTube video, should you have missed it earlier here at 7-Imp:

8 comments to “Getting By With a Little Help From Your Friend . . .”

  1. Must. Buy. This. Book.

    I will do it today. This morning, even. It sounds like I will enjoy it as much as I loved Traction Man is Here! (which I love-love-loved).

  2. I want to read this book so bad, and while before I wasn’t really jealous that you got a review copy and I didn’t… okay, now I am.

  3. Eisha, Some things are just so wrong.

    Jules, I thought the same thing about the comparison to George and Martha (which I’ve been rereading as I hope to write a post in honor of James Marshall’s b-day tomorrow, per Susan’s suggestion over at Chicken Spaghetti). I love that even though Scieszka and Smith are using a lot of broad humor and seemingly just making fun of everything, they are very much participating in a literary tradition.

  4. Word, Adrienne. I didn’t know that about James Marshall. I adore his books. I look forward to reading your post.

  5. I bought this book on faith. It looked stupid to my adult eyes, but I trusted that my fourth graders would find it funny. They did. Rolling on the floor funny. The Halloween costumes. The beans page. All of it. Hysterical.

  6. After seeing your review I found this book at work and it was hilarious. As a child I read George and Martha and thought they were funny then, but when i reread them recently I thought they were even more amusing.

  7. This book’s got gestalt. I totally don’t get it on a cerebral level, but think it’s hilarious on… some over level. Good call on the G & M split-pea parallel! The beginning of the book reminded me of the joke, “What’s an octopus’ favorite Beatles song?” Answer: “I want to hold your hand, hand, hand, hand, hand, hand,hand, hand.”

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