This month, Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Phyllis Root, the usual hosts of this column, have invited Kari Pearson to share her recommendations for funny picture books.
Let’s play a game! It’s called Funny/Not Funny. It goes like this:
Funny: Eating greasy bloaters with cabbage-and-potato sog (see: How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen)
Not Funny: Shoveling gigantic snowdrifts out of my driveway into piles almost as tall as myself.
Laughing matters, as anyone who has survived a Minnesota winter will tell you.
Whether you’re snowbound or not, I hope you will enjoy the warmth and wit this quirky collection of picture books has to offer. Some of them are old (look for them at your library or online through Alibris), others are newer. Most importantly, all are guaranteed to be more hilarious than discovering you have to kick your own front door open from the inside because it has frozen shut overnight in a blizzard (file under: not funny). Not that that happened, because that would be ridiculous.
The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater (Scholastic, 1977)
It all starts with The Big Orange Splot. More specifically, with a seagull who is carrying a bucket of orange paint (no one knows why), which he drops onto Mr. Plumbean’s house (no one knows why). Unfazed, Mr. Plumbean allows the splot to remain and goes about his business, much to the neighbors’ chagrin. On this neat street such things simply aren’t done. Eventually, Plumbean agrees that this has gone far enough. He buys some paint and gets to work correcting the problem.
Overnight, the big orange splot is joined by smaller orange splots, stripes, pictures of elephants and lions, steamshovels, and other images befitting a rainbow jungle explosion. “My house is me and I am it,” Plumbean tells his flabbergasted neighbors. “My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.” But Plumbean doesn’t stop there. Palm trees, frangipani, alligators…nothing is too outlandish for his new dream house. “Plumbean has popped his cork, flipped his wig, blown his stack, and dropped his stopper” the neighbors exclaim in dismay. They go about hatching a plan to get things back to normal on their neat street. But as they soon discover, once a Big Orange Splot appears, there’s no going back. Plumbean’s unbridled imagination far outstrips even their most ardently held pedestrian sensibilities. Wigs have only begun to flip.
“Señoras y Señores, put your hands together for the fantastic, spectacular, one of a kind…Niño!” So begins the most improbable lucha libre wrestling competition of all time. Our hero is Niño, a diminutive boy in a red mask with more than a few tricks up his (non-existent) sleeves. Armed with little more than a popsicle, a decoy doll, and assorted puzzle pieces, Niño prevails against a colorful array of foes. La Llorona (the weeping woman), Cabeza Olmeca (a sculpted basalt head from the Olmec civilization), and the terrifying Guanajuato Mummy are just a few of the characters in this winning tribute to the theatrical world of lucha libre. Certain illustrations might be a bit scary for the youngest readers, but they are presented in a silly way that make them less frightening and more fun. And lest you think that Niño has no serious competition, rest assured that all bets are off once his little sisters, las hermanitas, wake up from their nap…
Slow Loris by Alexis Deacon (Kane/Miller, 2002)
If you’ve ever been to the zoo, you probably noticed that some animals are just not that exciting. Or are they? This story delves into the daily life of Slow Loris, an impossibly boring animal who earns his name by spending ten minutes eating a satsuma, twenty minutes going from one end of his branch to the other, and a whole hour scratching his bottom. But Slow Loris has a secret. At night, he gets up and does everything fast! When the other zoo animals get over their surprise at how wild Slow Loris really is, they don’t hesitate to join his all-night party, which includes (among other things) a multitude of hats, colorful ties, dancing, and an epic drum solo (by Slow Loris, of course). As you would imagine, it’s a slow day at the zoo after that as the party animals sleep off the previous night’s shenanigans. Boring!
Stop That Pickle! by Peter Armour, illustrated by Andrew Shachat (Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
As fast as Slow Loris may be by night, I’m guessing he still couldn’t catch the runaway pickle from Mr. Adolph’s deli. Rather than be eaten by one Ms. Elmira Deeds, this plucky pickle leaps out of the jar and makes a break for it. Stop That Pickle! is a delightfully wacky story of one pickle’s daring escape and ultimate triumph over a host of other foods trying to catch it. (And if you were wondering if there is any solidarity in the food world, this book answers that question with a resounding NO.)
When Mr. Adolph is immediately overwhelmed by the pickle’s speed, a disgruntled peanut butter and jelly sandwich joins the chase. “Everyone knows that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is not the fastest sandwich in the world, but it does have great endurance.” Page by page tension builds as more foods join the pack, all shouting: Stop That Pickle!. By the end of the book the pickle is being pursued by not only the sandwich (hello, endurance!), but also a braided pretzel, green pippin apple, seventeen toasted almonds, a crowd of raisins, a cake doughnut, a cool grape soda, and an elegant vanilla ice cream cone. How will our pickle prevail??? The story culminates in a back alley moment of truth which I won’t spoil for you, but rest assured that this pickle lives to run another day. With its satisfying (yet totally ineffectual) refrain, Stop That Pickle! is a great read aloud book and will definitely make you think twice about the moral advisability of skewering the last pickle in the jar.
Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf (Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013)
When Sophie spots a butternut squash at the farmers’ market, it is love at first sight. Her squash is “just the right size to hold in her arms. Just the right size to bounce on her knee. Just the right size to love.” Finally, Sophie has found the perfect friend! Except…her parents seem to want to eat her friend. “Don’t listen, Bernice!” Sophie cries at the suggestion of cooking Bernice with marshmallows. And so Bernice becomes part of the family. She goes to story time at the library, rolls down hills, visits other squash. Everything is fine until one day Bernice is not quite herself. She starts looking spotty and her somersaults don’t have “their usual style.” What to do? This heartwarming story is has a simple, funny sweetness to it as Sophie learns about being a loyal friend and what it means to let go. Don’t miss the illustrated endpapers which feature Sophie in her unparalleled squashy exuberance! This book also offers a seasonally appropriate lesson: winter might seem like the end, but sometimes it is only the beginning.
How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Quentin Blake (Atheneum, 1974)
No self-respecting list of funny picture books would be complete without How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen. This gem is from an era where picture books were a bit longer, but that just means there is more hilarity here to enjoy. Tom is a boy who knows fooling around. He fools around “with sticks and stones and crumpled paper, with mewses and passages and dustbins, with bent nails and broken glass and holes in fences.” You get the idea. He’s an expert.
This deeply troubles Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, a formidable woman in an iron hat who believes boys should spend their time memorizing pages from the Nautical Almanac instead of doing things that suspiciously resemble playing. So she calls in Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to teach Tom a lesson in fooling around. As you might imagine, Captain Najork has wildly underestimated Tom’s expertise in these matters and gets his comeuppance accordingly. Quentin Blake’s wonderfully zany line drawings are the perfect accompaniment to the hijinks of this weird and totally satisfying story. Greasy bloaters, anyone? There’s also some cabbage-and-potato sog left. Somehow.