Review of the Day: I’m Just No Good at Rhyming by Chris Harris, ill. Lane Smith
I’m Just No Good at Rhyming: And Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups
By Chris Harris
Illustrated by Lane Smith
Little, Brown and Company
Ages 7 and up
On shelves now
What exactly constitutes a celebrity children’s book these days? See, it all used to be so simple when it was just actors and musicians inflicting their words on our young. In the good old days you could count on a book by Madonna to be crummy, Jay Leno to be offensive, and Mario Lopez to be . . . well, you can probably figure that one out on your own. They were schlock, one and all, and while you might get the occasional decent book by John Lithgow or Jamie Lee Curtis, by and large celebrity picture books were a bane on the marketplace and that’s that. Then came the writers. That hurt. It was odd enough when you had artsy musicians like Colin Meloy writing full-blown novels alongside guys like Jason Segal and Chris Colfer, but when the screenwriters started getting in on the act things got weird. Look! There’s B.J. Novak knocking it out of the park with his The Book With No Pictures. Daily Show writer Josh Lieb didn’t do too badly when he wrote the middle grade novel, I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President. But by far, the best book to come out of that cesspool of mediocre dribble known as Hollywood has got to be I’m Just No Good at Rhyming by writer and producer Chris Harris. It just chaps my hide. Where does this guy get off not only writing a funny book of middle grade poetry but writing it so bloody WELL? Funniest book of the year for kids? Gosh, there’s a lot of competition out there but. . . . YES, YES, ALL RIGHT, YOU GOT ME! This is probably the funniest book of 2017 for kids. And believe you me, I say this under duress. Doggone talented writer people.
“Do You Love Dinosaurs? Well, tough luck! There are NO DINOSAURS in this ENTIRE BOOK.” I don’t usually quote the inside book flap of a book when I summarize a collection of poetry, but I think that sets the tone for “I’m Just No Good at Rhyming” by Chris Harris pretty darn well. Irreverent? You don’t know the half of it. Chris Harris pulls together ribald, funny poems with such titles as “Just Because I’m a Turkey Sandwich and Some Chips Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Have Feelings Too, You Know!”, “The Island Where Everyone’s Toby” and “The Nursery Rhyme ‘Little Boy Blue,’ With Some Words Replaced by Delicious Greek Food.” In the course of the poetry, of course, illustrator Lane Smith and Harris knock heads, even as the poems veer between gentle/sweet and wackadoodle/goofy. But that’s okay. If it means watching a kid laugh out loud over a poem, you can bet it’s all worth it.
Librarians, booksellers, independent reviewers like myself, we all adhere to a code of unspoken rules. Here’s one of my favorites: Thou shalt not compare a new children’s book to a classic author, illustrator, or title every time you happen to like what it’s doing. One good example: Shel Silverstein. The fellow who wrote A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. For my generation the man basically redefined what funny poetry could do. And sure, you can go back in time as far as Edward Lear if you really wanted to establish some early funny children’s poetry (has anyone ever released Lear’s poetry in a Silverstein-esque style, by the way?) but it was Shel that made it cool for late 20th century kids like myself. Heck, without him we never would have gotten all those Jack Prelutsky collections. Many have tried to imitate the man, but the thing about Shel was that he didn’t rely on the old standards. He was new and disgusting and captivating. You read his books partly out of a desire to be amused and partly because you were too terrified to stop. Now I’ve looked into this Chris Harris fellow. He appears to be a little bit older than me but not by much. Prime Silverstein fandom age. And though I am aware that I am breaking my own cardinal rule by saying this, it cannot be left unsaid: The man is as funny as Silverstein. There. I said it. Run me out of town on a rail, but it’s true. Harris has “it”.
A book of collected poems for children can go one of two directions. It can either remain a random assortment of poetry, unlinked items floating freely on 220+ pages OR it can had some sort of form and function and purpose and (dare I mention it?) plot! Shel sort of eschewed this method, but I like it. For this reason, Harris loads his book down with callbacks, running gags, and a storyline involving the antipathy between Harris and his illustrator that ultimately culminates in the author images and bios at the back of the book. What this does is reward those readers that systematically read the poetry in the correct order, front to back. Which, when you think about it, sort of goes against the spontaneous feel of the book itself. For a collection of lightly controlled anarchy, it’s weird that the kids that duly read every page from beginning to end will have a distinct advantage over those kids that prefer to dip in and out. Them’s the breaks, I guess. Let that be a lesson to you, children. Never dip.
But you can’t be funny all of the time. Not really. Because that’s the problem with these fancy writerly types. They actually seem to want to “write”. It’s the worst! You think you’re safe with the usual fare involving Cyclops wearing glasses and the like and then out of nowhere you get a poem like “The World’s Best Offer” which is actually quite sweet and warm and affectionate towards fathers. Don’t be too surprised. Silverstein would do the same thing. Remember his poem “Hug-a-War”? No? Then you’re lucky. It is fortunate for all of us that Harris is much better at drawing meaning out of his poems than Shel ever was. The proof is in the pudding. Which is to say, in the last long poem in the book. It’s called “Let’s Meet Right Here in Twenty-Five Years” and it has the distinct pleasure of only letting you in on the joke after a while. The poem is written by this book itself, urging the young reader to come back in twenty-five years to pick this book up one last time. I’ll admit it. It kind of made me tear up a little. Because while “I’m Just No Good at Rhyming” relies on silly jokes to get the kids reading in the first place, poems like this one give young readers something to think about long after the pages have closed.
There are occasional misfires, but that comes with any anthology, whether it’s short stories or poems or collected comics. The question is not whether the book is a pristine work of perfection, gleaming with an inner light of untainted glory. Rather, it’s a question of ratios. What is the ratio of good stuff to bad in this book? I’d say Harris bats around a (quickly does research to find out what a good batting average might sound like) .275. He knocks it out of the park (I’m sticking with this baseball metaphor for some reason) more often than not. So, for every “Mummy’s Lament” (a tired series of movie monster and old person clichés) you’ll get ten “Infinity Poem”s. And I’ll be the first to admit that humor is subjective and what you find funny I may not find amusing at all, and vice versa. That said, I’ve yet to find anyone who read through this book and didn’t feel a deep and abiding affection for it afterwards. Misfires and quirks aside.
Imagine for a moment that you are the editor that finds this manuscript on their desk. Your job, after acquiring it, is to find it just the right illustrator. You’re going to want someone cool. There are lots of folks out there that are more than willing to illustrate poetry, but are they cool enough? A book of this sort demands art that complements the work and doesn’t detract from it BUT is funny in its own right. You see the problem? There are loads of good artists out there, but could any of them contribute the sheer number of illustrations this kind of a book might require? As the editor on this, I would probably have tried Jon Klassen, toyed with the notion of Bob Staake, considered Christian Robinson, and perhaps even begged Kate Beaton for a moment or two. Lane Smith, I hate to say it, was an inspired choice. Cool? Yeah. He’s cool. Funny? Well you pick up The Stinky Cheese Man and tell me what YOU think, eh? If a guy can illustrate Math Curse then he can certainly come up with something adequate for a poem about a one-legged centipede called “The Unipede”. And while every part of this book (the dedications, index, book flaps, cover behind the jacket, etc.) is open to silliness, Smith’s description of his process on the publication page is anything but ribald. In all seriousness we learn that the pictures here were created “with India ink on vellum, which was pressed onto watercolor paper to create a blotted line effect. The color, painted in oil over gesso, was scanned and added digitally on a secondary layer under the ink-line.” You get all that? The color palette is subdued, mostly browns and grays with the occasional pink or blue or green for spice. Again, it means your attention goes primarily to the words, which is both good and bad. Good, because these are some great words at work here. Bad, because the art’s pretty great and worth considering as well.
I’m not going to tell you what age to read this book to your kids, because it’s going to be different for every kid. Some 10-12 year olds will find it on their own (particularly the ones who ask their librarians for more funny stuff “like A Light in the Attic”). Other kids might prove older, or even younger. My six-year-old and three-year-old are VERY fond of “The Sweetest Lullaby Ever (For Parents to Tell Their Children)”. So am I, for that matter. That’s the problem with Chris Harris. He makes you love his work, even when you’re trying desperately to find something wrong with it. I will say this much then: If Mr. Harris thinks his job here is done then he’s got another thing coming. Oh sure, the life of a fancypants television producer probably makes mad bank, but Mr. Harris, we need more of this kind of stuff. Not necessarily poetry, mind you. Just this kind of hilarious, gut-busting writing with a smidgen of hopeful meaning stirred in there for spice. This is the kind of book that reminds people that poetry for kids shouldn’t just be relegated to the month of April. Read a smattering of this to a room of reluctant readers and watch as they fight, tooth and claw, to get their hands on a copy. Please, sir. We’d like some more.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy borrowed from the library.
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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