Archives for posts with tag: Picture Books-Humor

Talking Animals in the Human World

and the Humans Who Aren’t Surprised to Hear Them Speak

Randall Borchers

Four of the most powerful words in literature are “once upon a time.” When a story begins with those words anything can happen and all is believed. Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t bat an eye when a wolf begins to talk. Or, vice versa. Fat Cat can converse with soldiers as easily as washing ladies, mice, and kings. Not to mention, swallow them whole then set them free without any harm. Without that classic phrase to suspend disbelief contemporary writers tend to accomplish the same in two ways. Both come down to the strength of the author’s conviction and voice.

Those writing novels for older children often establish this leap of faith in a simple, broad stroke. In THE MOUSE AND THE MOTOCYCLE Beverly Clearly calmly states “Neither the mouse nor the boy was the least bit surprised that each could understand the other. Two creatures who shared a love for motorcycles naturally spoke the same language.” Michael Bond’s explanation for Paddington Bear speaking English is equally succinct. Paddington’s Aunt Lucy back in Peru talk him English so he would be able to immigrate to England and fend for himself. Case closed.

Given the brevity of picture books, authors in this genre are even more economic.  Carpe diem. No need to explain. Simply jump in and believe.


Jan De Brunhoff’s text and illustrations for THE STORY OF BABAR calmly have elephant, wealthy lady, and other city folk conversing as fact. There is no time for doubt because the story keeps moving forward in a confident voice. The famous crocodile and New Yorker, Lyle, also lives naturally among humans. Like Babar, Lyle never speaks specific dialogue in quotation marks, but he converses without everyone. Nor is anyone surprised or concerned to see him in department stores or antique shops.


Maxwell Eaton’s series featuring Max and Pinky (including THE MYSTERY) leaps forward in its own way. Max is human. Pinky is a pig who often wears painter’s overhauls like Max. They communicate with each other as well as the more natural, non-dressed animals on the farm (horse, turtle, bird and mouse). Once again, people and animals talk to one another. Case closed. On with the story.


It is important to realize how illustrations can greatly contribute to this leap of faith. Varying degrees of cartoon-style illustrations work best in supporting the leap into animals casually conversing with people. The greater the visual realism the harder it is to step beyond that realism. While we may not be able to control the illustrations, we writers who do not illustrate can still provide solid guidance through our voice and the directness of our descriptions.

Be sure. Be firm. Be nonchalant.  Animals and humans may have conversed once upon a time, but there is no reason they can’t today. We just have to believe it ourselves.


Referenced Books & Others

A BEAR CALLED PADDINGTON by Michael Bond. Houghton, 1958.

CITY CHICKEN by Arthur Dorros. Illus. by Henry Cole. Harper, 2003.

CORNERED ANIMALS by Randall Borchers. Adama Books, 1988.

EPOSSUMONDAS by Coleen Salley. Illus. by Janet Stevens. Harcourt, 2002.

FAT CAT: A DANISH FOLKTALE retold by Margaret Read MacDonald. Illus. by Julie Paschkis. August House, 2001.

LYLE, LYLE, CROCODILE by Bernard Weber. Houghton, 1965.

MARTHA THE MOVIE MOUSE by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1966.

THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE by Beverly Clary. Harper, 1965.

THE MYSTERY by Maxwell Eaton III. Knopf, 2008.

NORMAN THE DOORMAN by Don Freeman. Viking, 1959.

THE STORY OF BABAR by Jan De Brunhoff. Random, 1933.


Kafka, Picture Books, and Spiderman

Linking Franz Kafka with picture books may seem absurd, but influences of his short story “The Metamorphosis” can be found in many books for young children.

These picture books are certainly fantasies, but the character’s metamorphosis is the single element of fantasy. Each narrative begins with a straight-faced leap from a very high diving board. The impossible literally happens, and must be dealt with in the real world. They are the ultimate “fish out of water” tale even though the (former) fish remains in his home water.

Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” begins:

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.

THE MAN WHO LOST HIS HEAD by Claire Huchet Bishop begins:

Once upon a time there was a Man who lost his head.

LOUIS THE FISH by Arthur Yorinks begins:

One day last spring, Louis, a butcher, turned into a fish. Silvery scales. Big lips. A tail. A salmon. Louis did not lead, before this an unusual life…

David Small’s IMOGENE’S ANTLERS begins:

On Thursday, when Imogene woke up, she found she had grown antlers.

Like Kafka’s salesman, these three characters discover their transformation as they wake in bed one morning.

Other sudden and extreme transformations occur in picture books, but the change is more internal.  These tales are less like Kafka than they are Spiderman where a spider bite transforms a nerd to superhero. Susan Meddaugh’s dog, Martha, is suddenly able to speak after consuming a bowl of alphabet soup. In WEEZER CHANGES THE WORLD, David McPhail’s dog begins as a typical puppy chewing toys and tinkling on the rug. But once “something striking” happens (lightning) Weezer begins predicting weather, playing piano, helping doctors solve diseases, and more.

Scott Santoro’s FARM-FRESH CATS offers a third type of poker-face dive into the extreme. It’s not an individual who is suddenly transformed within or without, but agriculture. A farmer checks his field and discovers that his crop is no longer cabbages but cats. Once again, the drastic metamorphosis is identified as something unexplainable. Then, on with the action and story’s arc.

These stories featuring outrageous events have a distant relationship to the tall tales found in folklore. But the two genres have more differences than similarities. While tall tales pile one impossible situation on top of another, these Kafka style picture books stick with one or perhaps two impossible actions. The traditional narrator of a tall tale is also very tongue-in-cheek. The narrator knows he’s telling a lie and with a wink let’s the audience knows that he knows that they know he’s telling a lie. It’s all part of the game and the fun.

In contrast, the tone and voice of Kafka-style picture books are both poker-faced. There may be humor, but it is based in characters’ coping with the transformation rather than the outlandish events that occur and their descriptions.

Why not play with our own dives off the high board into the impossible? This approach can provide rich exercise opportunities. We’ve got nothing to lose but opportunities.

Sample Picture Books That Echo Kafka’s Leap Outside Reality

A BAD CASE OF STRIPES by David Shannon. Blue Sky Press, 1998.

IMOGENE’S ANTLERS by David Small. Crown, 1985.

LOUIS THE FISH by Arthur Yorinks. Illus. by Richard Egielski. Farrar, 1980.

FARM-FRESH CATS by Scott Santoro. HarperCollins, 2006

THE MAN WHO LOST HIS HEAD by Claire Huchet Bishop. Illus. by Robert McCloskey. Viking, 1942.

MARTHA SPEAKS by Susan Meddaugh.  HoughtonMifflinHarcourt, 1995.

WEEZER CHANGES THE WORLD by David McPhail. Beach Lane, 2009.

Allan Ahlberg

“You set out to make a book because it amuses and pleases you to make it. It’s a pleasure to do. If you get it right, the pleasure will be shared by other adults right through the chain of publisher, bookseller, reviewer, school, parent to the child reader.  What a series of hurdles you have to clear!”   SIGNAL January 1990.

Obviously, anyone reading this knows that the hurdles are worth the effort.  Allan Ahlberg has been leaping over these hurdles through a long, varied, and prolific career. Not only does he understand the fun of a story well told, he knows and shares the delight of playing with the patterns of well-known stories.


Just some of the picture books by Allan Ahlberg

THE ADVENTURES OF BURT. Illus. by Raymond Briggs.  2001.

THE BRAVEST EVER BEAR. Illus. Paul Howard, 2001.

EACH PEACH PEAR PLUM. Illus. by Janet Ahlberg, 1978.

FUNNYBONES.  Illus. by Janet Ahlberg. 1988 (1980).

THE JOLLY POSTMAN. Illus. by Janet Ahlberg, 1986.

THE LITTLE CAT BABY.  Illus. Fritz Wegner. 2004.

MONKEY DO! illus. by Andre Amstutz, 1999.

PEEPO! Illus. by Janet Ahlberg, 1981.

THE PENCIL. Illus. by Bruce Ingman, 2008.

PREVIOUSLY! Illus. by Bruce Ingman. 2008.


BOOTSIE BARKER BITES is as fresh today as it was at publication eighteen years ago. Its theme of dealing with a bully appears in many other books that have come and gone. The reason BOOTSIE remains is its writing and illustration beginning with the title and cover. Bottner’s title literally evokes the sharp and bold nature of the bully, Bootsie: B-B-B! Imagining optional titles quickly shows what would be lost.




Rathmann’s depiction of Bootsie on the cover is worthy of a classic melodrama poster.  She may have a cutsie nickname and be dressed for tea and sporting a hat worthy of Bella Abzug, but Bootsie’s gritted teeth and artificial grin are a warning to all.  We don’t even know who the protagonist is, but we are already on his/her side. 

Bottner’s voice and tone keep BOOTSIE immediate and fun.  Rather than writing as adult with a lesson to share, Bottner’s (unnamed) protagonist tells her own story from the trenches of childhood.

My mother and Bootsie Barker’s mother are best friends. When Mrs. Barker comes to visit, she always brings chocolate donuts, fresh strawberries, and Bootsie.

The voice is direct and seemingly powerless in a world of adults.

I tell my mother I don’t like playing with Bootsie Barker.  My mother tells me I have to learn to get along with all kinds of people.

Later when Bootsie is coming to spend an entire night, the young protagonist snaps.

I can’t stand it anymore. Bootsie Barker is a DINOSAUR!” I shout, “and she’s PLANNING TO EAT ME ALIVE!”

Bottner’s text stays true to the realities of childhood, and in doing so gives the young victim an opportunity to grow.

My mother looks surprised.

“Sweetheart,” she says, “tell Bootsie you don’t want to play that game.”

I go to my room to think it over.

Charlene [her salamander] and I spend the morning inventing a new game.

Giving Bootsie a dose of her own medicine solves the dilemma and saves the day.  Bottner’s victim is now victor, and shares a smirk of her own as she concludes her story;

Bootsie throws a tantrum on the sidewalk.

So Bootsie’s parents take Bootsie to Chicago.

Which means I don’t have to wish Bootsie takes a rocket to outer space.  Although if she does, it’s fine with me.

This is a picture book to savor, share, and study.

BOOTSIE BARKER BITES by Barbara Bottner. Illus. by Peggy Rathmann. Putnam, 1992.


Most popular songs—traditional ballad to pop—share the same pattern.  Verse-Chorus.  Verse-Chorus.  The verses may share a single narrative or be individual pieces that share a link with the chorus.  Like the cumulative narrative, this format creates a blend of expansion balanced with familiarity.  It is the soon familiar chorus that gives children a sense of inclusion and mastery.

Picture book choruses may be as short as one line.  I CAN DO IT TOO by Karen Baicker is a list of what other family members are able to do followed by the young narrator’s proclamation, “I can do it too!” Like the best of songs, Baicker’s final verse expands on the accumulated and reveals a sense of change.  Followed, of course, with the satisfaction of a final round of the chorus.

Liz Garton Scanlon’s ALL THE WORLD is another fine example of the verse-chorus pattern.  But here is the chorus is woven into the final line of each verse.

“Body, shoulder, arm, hand

A moat to dig,

A shell to keep

All the world is wide and deep”

Scanlon’s verses are truly in verse.  Yet, by beginning each verse’s final line with “all the world is” she is able to maintain the sounds of her rhythm and rhyme AND share a sense of chorus.

KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes follows a more traditional story pattern of BEGINNING-MIDDLE-END.  But he uses a repetitive chorus to deepen Kitten’s dilemma and frustration.  After each of Kitten’s failed attempts to consume the milky moon Henkes writes:

“Poor Kitten! Still, there was the little bowl of milk, just waiting.”

After two more tries at the moon and the chorus, the mission shifts to the bigger bowl of milk reflecting in the pond.  Even though the story is no longer concerned with the “little bowl of milk, just waiting” in the sky, a portion of the familiar chorus returns:

“Poor Kitten!”

Henkes establishes the pattern of chorus so well that he is able to reduce his chorus to a single word.  Then give it a twist, and we still feel the satisfaction of a chorus and its final chord.

“Lucky Kitten!”

The picture books by Charlotte Pomerantz reveal her sense of poetry, language, and play. THE PIGGY IN THE PUDDLE demonstrates even wider variations in the way writers can use verse-chorus in picture books. The typical chorus always contains the same words each time it is song or read.  Pomerantz isn’t as concerned for repetition of specific words as for the similarity of rhythm and style.  Her choruses are not identical, yet deeply related.

The story focuses on family members trying to coax a pig to get out of the muddy puddle.  To no surprise, the little pig will have nothing of it.

“Squishy-squashing, squishy-squash—NOPE!”

“Moosy-squooshy, mooshy-squooshy—NOPE!”

“Oofy-poofy, oofy-poofy—NOPE!”

The second half of the story shifts to the theme “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” which develops a new chorus that follows each family members’ action.

She said, “I bet my feet get wet.”


He said, “I bet my tail gets wet.”


He held his nose and yelled, “Here goes!”


The text could have ended there, but Pomerantz knows the visceral satisfaction of pulling the rhythms of the story back to its beginning.  When the little piggy proposes soap and getting clean the rest of her family now happily in the muddy puddle proclaim: “Oofy-poofy—NOPE!”

Children have no need to be able to identity the writing terms for this awareness and use of pattern.  But they feel it.  It IS part of the story.  Our use of sound and pattern enhance and enrich our stories.

Sample Picture Books

ALL THE WORLD by Liz Garton Scanlon. Illus. by Marla Frazee, Beach Lane Books, 2009.

I CAN DO IT TOO! by Karen Baicker.  Illus. by Ken Wilson-Max.  Handprint, 2003.

KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 2004.

OVERBOARD by Sarah Weeks. Illus. by Sam Williams, Harcourt, 2006.

THE PIGGY IN THE PUDDLE by Charlotte Pomerantz. James Marshall, Simon & Schuster, 1974.

PILOT PUPS by Michelle Meadows. Illus. by Dan Andreasen.  Simon & Schuster, 2008.

RAIN MAKES APPLESAUCE by Julian Scheer.  Illus. by Marvin Bileck.  Holiday, 1964.

SAKES ALIVE! A CATTLE DRIVE by Karma Wilson. Illus. by Karla Firehammer. Little Brown, 2005.


"Yours Truly, Louisa" by Simon Puttock


Louisa the pig has opinions.  The farm is too dirty, and the farmer should do something about it.  To that end she writes a series of anonymous letters to the farmer.  He tries to make improvements.  But Louisa wants more and more improvements. Simon Puttock’s wry fable moves at a lively pace.  Crisp scenes and dialogue drive the story that eventually finds Louisa leaving the farm in disgust.  And, of course, returning once she discovers the grass is not always greener (or cleaner) on the other side.

Puttock’s story appears to be simple, but evolves with a deft shift as to which character truly has a problem and who is responsible for resolving it.  The gem of Pottock’s writing is that he begins with the demanding child or self-righteous adult as the “victim” and concludes by showing that the “victim” has the power to affect his own dilemma.

As  serious as that may sound, Yours Truly, Louisa remains light-hearted and playful thanks to Pottock’s text and Jo Kiddie’s deadpan illustrations.  Cheers.

Puttock, Simon.  Yours Truly, Louisa.  Illustrated by Jo Kiddie.  HarperCollins, 2009.  ISBN: 978-0-06-136634-5