Chaos Unleashed: What Picture Books Tell Us When They Go Completely Bonkers
I don’t know if it’s the state of the world today, the upcoming election, or just the fact that I live in a house with a two-year-old and a five-year-old, but in this atmosphere a woman’s thoughts turn to the power of complete and utter anarchy. That’s been on my mind thanks, in large part, to some classic book rereleases I’ve been enjoying this year. Older picture books. Classic picture books. Picture books that give no outward indication of the fine kerfuffles enclosed within. So today, we pay homage to those titles that most successfully tap into the heart of the proper fiasco in all its wild, untamed, unapologetic glory.
On October 4th, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released the 75th Anniversary edition of The Complete Adventures of Curious George. This isn’t the most groundbreaking bit of news. Five years ago they issued the 70th Anniversary edition, and the odds are good that five years from now we’ll have in our hands the 80th Anniversary edition. Still, I was very pleased to get my hands on a copy. I’d never read ALL the original Rey Georges to my offspring, though I was pretty sure I knew all the elements that wouldn’t fly in a picture book today. Sniffing ether? Check. Smoking pipes? Check. Getting kidnapped out of colonial Africa by an unapologetic white guy in a big hat? Check check and check (makes you really appreciate Furious George Goes Bananas sometimes, don’t it?). Yep, I was pretty sure I knew all the ins and outs. Nothing could surprise me.
Then I read Curious George Gets a Medal.
If you are unfamiliar with this particular George adventure, it reads a lot like an older episode of The Simpsons. The first part of the book is all about wacky hijinks and the second part is more staid and serious. The two storylines also have absolutely nothing to do with one another, and it was this first part of the book that really hooked my attention.
Written in 1957, the book begins with George receiving a letter while The Man With the Yellow Hat takes off for that unnamed job of his. Inspired to write his own missive, the ape locates a fountain pen and attempts to fill it directly with ink using a funnel. It looks something like this:
Did I mention the book was written in 1957? There are few pleasures in this life quite as magnificent as watching a 21st century child act superior to George, as if they (or for that matter, their parents) had any idea how to fill a fountain pen themselves. George tries to clean up the ink with a blotter (again, a bit on the dated side there) and when that doesn’t work he goes and gets some soap powder. Soap powder, I tell you! Then he gets a hose and begins the process of slowly drowning his own house. To get the water out he attempts to purloin a local pump belonging to a farm, but in doing so manages to let loose all the farm’s pigs before taking off with a cow as well.
It’s the escalation of a fiasco that is part of its pleasure. George has always traditionally stood in for the young reader, and I’d go so far as to say that this is his most impressive bit of chaos in any of his books. Larceny, vandalism, criminal mischief, and he gets a medal by the book’s end (the title needs a spoiler alert). Reading this book, I began to wonder what the earliest examples might be of picture book authors and illustrators going hog wild on the chaotic front. Interestingly The Cat in the Hat, himself a walking id, was also published in 1957. If you like, you might choose to read something into what was happening in America during that time.
Another collection of picture books, this time released as recently as on September 6th, is Richard Scarry’s Busytown Treasury. Since we Birds run more of a Cars and Truck and Things That Go household over here, I was interested in looking at some of these very different Scarry tales. Happily, I was not ready for Scarry’s own particular brand of chaotic humor. Nothing, and I mean nothing, properly prepared me for A Day at the Fire Station.
Now to properly appreciate this book, it is best to watch how Scarry builds and builds and builds the frenetic energy of the piece. Two little raccoons named Drippy and Sticky enter a fire station. For whatever reason, they start to paint the place with the firetrucks and firefighters still in it. Mild paint splatter ensues. This is topped a few pages later by the scene of an accident that the firefighters must attend. It is, and here you begin to get a glimpse of Scarry really getting into this, a crash between a cement mixer, a honey truck, and a haywagon. BUT WAIT! There’s more. The firefighters return to the station, slip on the paint job (seriously, who paints a floor?), and we get this rather glorious scene.
But do not for one moment THINK we are even close to done. Scarry’s just warming up, folks.
The firefighters immediately get another call, so even though they’ve just potentially wrecked millions of dollars’ worth of equipment they roll their firetrucks out the door AGAIN (which, for the record, are still covered in cement/honey/hay) and go put out a pizza fire. When they return everything seems calm. Like the eye of a storm.
And that’s when the strawberry jam truck gets hit by Roger Rhino’s wrecking crane.
Please enjoy what has to be the most sarcastic sentence in any Richard Scarry book ever:
I will leave you now with the last image. It’s like Carrie‘s prom or something.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you create a fiasco.
There are other, more recent books, that follow in this wacked out tradition, of course. I have a particular fondness for the paint-based insanity to be found in I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More by Karen Beaumont and David Catrow (extra points for the nude full-body painting).
But what are your favorites? What books work as a kind of catharsis in this age of televised insanity? Because as strange as it may sound, we need picture books that tap into our most extreme natures. They tell us that even if the world around you is falling apart at the seams, isn’t it nice to know that after all is said and done, every mess will get cleaned up eventually?
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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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