Review of the Day: Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great by Bob Shea
I feel like it’s only recently that pop culture has opened its eyes and realized that when it comes to mythical creatures, unicorns are the funniest animals. Sasquatches rank a close second and zombies have their laughs, but for out-and-out humor, unicorns beat all (there’s a reason the “Charlie the Unicorn” vid was one of the first viral videos on YouTube). I say that and yet there hasn’t been a single funny unicorn picture book out there that I could name off the top of my head. I say there hasn’t been one . . . until now. And who else would have had the sweet twisted sense to come up with the world’s greatest unicorn-related picture book other than Bob Shea? If you thrilled to his Dinosaur Vs. Bedtime and were wowed by his New Socks then hold on to your hats folks. The man has just outdone himself and the result is the funniest picture book I have read in years and years and years. Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great all right. And so will you.
Poor Goat. He’s feeling pretty downtrodden at the moment. You would too if you had to compete with someone like a Unicorn for attention. When Goat rides his bike to school no one notices him thanks to flying Unicorn. When he brings marshmallow squares (“that almost came out right”), Unicorn makes it rain cupcakes. When he tries to do a magic trick, unicorn turns stuff into gold. “I can’t follow that!” Goat’s content to mull over the situation alone, until Unicorn comes on by. First Unicorn cannot get enough out of Goat’s goat cheese pizza (unicorns can’t make cheese). Then he gets wowed by Goat’s hooves (they’re cloven). And then he starts wondering what it would be like to do stuff like play soccer without destroying the ball. When all is said and done, it may well be that Goat and Unicorn have a lot in common with one another. Maybe they’ll be friends after all.
Why should you pick this book up? I direct your attention at this time to the cover. There you will notice that the title “Unicorn” is written with sparkles and letters that are every color of the rainbow. Unicorn, for his part, is making it rain cupcakes from his hooves. Smiling cupcakes. On the back cover Unicorn is reading this book as a flock of yellow and green birds tweet their undying love to him. The title page shows a cloud raining on goat and everything else, except for smiling unicorn (a small heart coming from the cloud in adoration). On the dedication page the goat sits morosely covered in flowers that clearly erupted over his personage when Unicorn skipped past. And if all that weren’t enough, please note that when you look at the endpapers at the back of the book and you see, yet again, the unceasing row of smiling cupcakes, notice that one of them has been replaced by a partially devoured slice of goat cheese pizza. All of these details, every last one, exist around the story itself. If you can imagine how much time the author/illustrator has devoted to just these little bits and pieces, you can understand how much MORE time and love went into the actual book itself.
And yes, the art is magnificent inside as well. I mean, the fact that the unicorn is blue-eyed with red hair . . . I have no idea why that should be funny, but it is. He has this bizarre wide-eyed innocence about him. There’s also the fact that every time he enters a room he is surrounded by a universe in love with him. The shot of him approaching goat while behind him the mountains, lakes, forests, earthworms, and planes all give off little hearts of love is worth the price of admission alone. There’s actually a kind of Japanese animated sensibility to this. Shea is tapping into his inner kawaii to make a book that references the art without being direct. Note too that when Goat starts fantasizing about what awesome crime fighters the two could be, Shea subtly changes his style to become a little more old-fashioned and classic. It doesn’t jar the reader out of the book, but it does make a slight and subtle distinction to young readers that this storyline is just in Goat’s head. Remarkable!
And that’s all great. What surprised me was how amazing the writing was. First off, part of the reason the book works at all is that Shea figured out Goat’s personality from the get-go. He’s a little too eager to try and make himself look good. You know that he would kill to get the sort of attention unicorn attracts naturally. But the funny thing is that for all that we’re on to Goat from the start, we’re also on his side. Who amongst us would, in his place, feel anything but envy towards Unicorn? That’s why it works so well when Unicorn turns the tables, so to speak, and keeps oohing and aahing over Goat’s finer attributes. By the end of the story you know that Goat’s kind of a shyster and Unicorn is pretty nice, but you still feel really great over the fact that they’ve become friends.
The language of the text puts it over the top as far as I’m concerned. When Unicorn notices Goat’s feet he proclaims, “Whoa! What is up with your hooves? Those things are out of control!” Goat replies, “Oh, these? These bad boys are ‘cloven’.” Do you know how many writers of children’s books would kill to come up with picture book dialogue like this? The title alone is key to the rest of the text. It’s a contemporary look, a contemporary feel, and the language is straight out of the early 21st century. I wouldn’t have it any other way. No sir.
About the point I start hyperventilating over the fact that even the fonts in this book are fantastic (Goat speaks in a typewriter like font while Unicorn will occasionally burst out with multicolored words surrounded with sparkles) I know I have to reign myself in. So here’s the part where I mention in the review that no matter how awesome the book I’ve read is, there are still parts that need improvement.
Honest, I did try to come up with something. But this is one of the rare books where I cannot for the life of me figure out how anything in the title could be better. It’s about a friggin’ unicorn who eats glitter and rainbows and I think it’s jim dandy. Best danged thing I’ve encountered in a long time. You know what this book really is? It’s a unicorn book that boys will actually want to read. And personally I think that’s exciting news that should be celebrated far and wide. So if you’re looking for a funny picture book that would make a killer readaloud to kids in anywhere from Kindergarten to the 3rd Grade, pluck this puppy up and keep it by your side.
On shelves May 28th
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Great Lollipop Caper by Dan Krall
- Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Kahn
- Trouble in the Barkers’ Class by Tomie de Paola
- Bob Shea mentions his work on this book over at Literary Friendships.
Not entirely related but it does involve Bob Shea and a unicorn. Coincidence? I think not!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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