31 Days, 31 Lists: 2021 Funny Picture Books
About this time in the proceedings we start to tip a little more fully into my more subjective lists. I’ve produced lists this month on standard categories like “holiday” or “board books”. Funny books are a different kettle of fish entirely. What I find funny, you may not be amused by. And what you think is hilarious might elicit little more than a half-hearted snort from me. Nevertheless, I would dub the following picture books (some of which you’ve already seen before) some of the funniest picture book fare this year. Serious is easy. Making people laugh? That’s a challenge that only a few take on. Let’s reward the few then.
Carol and the Pickle Toad by Esmé Shapiro
You’ve gotta have a hard heart of stone or steel not to be at least somewhat delighted by this pickle toad’s expression on this cover. The story inside is gently nonsensical but its interior logic works, which is nice. And yes, it is indeed funny. For example, I liked the repeated funny beat of the faux pickle toad being plucked from Carol’s head after she lost the original. It has a great title, and it’s more gently humorous rather than slap-your-knee funny. There’s room enough in this world for both.
Chez Bob by Bob Shea
Lazy Bob the just wants to eat some birds. His solution? Open a fancy birdseed restaurant on his nose, of course! But when he starts to get attached to the birds, will he find he’s bitten off more than he can chew? Why do Bob Shea books make me laugh so friggin’ hard? From the man who brought you Who Wet My Pants? comes an unfamiliar story in a familiar package. And the turns of phrase! Shea is one of the rare picture book creators that I honestly think get better and better over time. This is one of the funniest books of the year. You will love it.
Ergo by Alexis Deacon, ill. Viviane Schwarz
Ergo the chick only knows the smooth, round world in which she lives and she very quickly comes to the belief that she IS the world. But when evidence suggests there might be more, this little chicken is unafraid to burst through barriers to discover what is and isn’t real. Words do not do justice to the extent to which I am charmed by this book. And I have to make a hat tip to the Candlewick Press marketing team for putting a finger on precisely why I might love it as much as I do. In their little write up they said that Deacon, “offers a picture book Plato for little ones”, which is PRECISELY what this is. This is what it is like to exist wholly in your own tiny world, in your own separate sphere (in this case, literally), convinced that you know all that there is to know because your limitations are all that you can see. Years ago Alvin Tresselt wrote the picture book The Frog in the Well and it reminds me so much of this book. But, of course, there is the whole Plato’s cave aspect as well. That sounds pretty philosophical for a picture book, but it’s so simple! Deacon and Schwartz previously worked on the not dissimilar A Place to Call Home which was also about blind tiny creatures interpreting the world with limited resources. Pair this alongside Ed Young’s Seven Blind Mice and you’ve got yourself a heckuva storytime! Big time fan over here.
The Little Wooden Robot and the Log Princess by Tom Gauld
When a childless king and queen seek kids of their own, they end up with a wooden robot and a girl made from a log. And when tragedy places the siblings in danger, they’ll do anything they can to keep one another from harm. This was a surprise. I read a lot of random books during my lunch break, and normally I have a sense of whether or not they’ve garnered much buzz. I hadn’t heard boo about this book initially, so admittedly my expectations may have been lowered. Then, lo and behold, I read it and discovered that Tom Gauld has an ear for fairytales that I haven’t encountered in a very long time. This is so sweet and so funny and so very perfect in terms of tone that I’m just stunned. Then I flipped the book over to discover blurbs by Neil Gaiman, Oliver Jeffers, Jillian Tamaki, Jon Klassen, and Carson Ellis. Clearly I was late to the party.
Mel Fell by Corey R. Tabor
[Previously seen on the Readaloud List]
Pack everything up and just go home, folks. You’re not gonna find a book half as charming as this one this year. Tabor’s pulling tricks out of his Peter Newell playbook here, mucking with the way you hold a book to make it not just a funny story (which it is – that snail at the end is fantastic) but a fantastic readaloud. Once you get comfortable turning the book the way it needs to be turned, I could see this just bringing down the house with certain storytimes. I like picture books that take risks, are funny, and have just a little bit of heart. This hits all those buttons, absolutely. There’s definitely a reason people keep singing the word “Caldecott” behind Tabor’s back.
Mr. Watson’s Chickens by Jarrett Dapier, ill. Andrea Tsurumi
Mr. Watson wants some chickens so he and his partner Mr. Nelson get three. But what happens when those three turn into 456 or more? Okay. Big fan of this one. Andrea Tsurumi is pulling out some serious Accident energy (Accident being a picture book she did that I really and truly enjoyed). This taps into what she does best and, I’d argue, what Jarrett does best too. I mean, I think I love it for the inclusion of the term “pickle slinger” alone. It felt a lot like Skunk & Badger at times (which is a compliment). Plus, this may be one of the truly rare books in which you have a gay couple that’s thoroughly affectionate towards one another without having to have kids. Big chaos energy alert!
Norman Didn’t Do It! (Yes, he did) by Ryan T. Higgins
Kind of what you’d get if you took The Giving Tree and then turned it into a love triangle. Norman’s a porcupine with a best friend: Mildred. And never mind the fact that Mildred is a thoroughly un-anthropomorphized tree. Norman and Mildred are best friends. Only one day, a new tree starts growing near Mildred and Norman finds himself overwhelmed with anxiety, doubt, and jealousy. Oh yes, the green-eyed monster has bitten him hard until eventually he commits a terrible act. Will Norman see the error of his ways (he does) and make amends (he does)? I’d say that this book really does a magnificent job of playing up Norman’s one-sided conversations with his arboreal neighbors. It’s a fun readaloud but the part that really made me laugh out loud was the surprise ending. Be sure you check out a teeny tiny page where Higgins has cleverly written out a long number of picture book creators’ names under the guise of types of trees.
Off-Limits by Helen Yoon
[Previously seen on the Readaloud List]
No home office is safe when there are little hands ready to try out all the binder clips, sticky notes, and other supplies. A truly hilarious story with a twist ending you won’t see coming. This book is Readaloud Gold (capital R, capital G), but it was my daughter who pointed out that this is a COVID book, albeit a subtle one (what goes on when a daughter gets into her dad’s home workspace). I was completely taken with the art and the text and it just STICKS that landing at the end! One of my favorites of the year.
The Rock From the Sky by Jon Klassen
He’s back. He never left us, but after the phenomenal success of I Want My Hat Back, Jon Klassen continued to make his own particular brand of droll little books. And I liked them, sure, but nothing had quite risen to that level of adoration I held for his first big hit. Until now. I tell you now, in all honesty, that this is Jon Klassen’s best book since Hat Back, no question. Looking at the cover you may feel that you are viewing a small, pared down animalian version of Waiting for Godot. Yet its feel is far more Looney Tunes than Beckett. Split into about five different stories, this title is all about timing, subversion, and quiet hilarity. Or maybe not so quiet. My kids were laughing their fool heads off the first time I read it to them. This book is a joy to have in your bookshelf. I’m still working on perfecting the voices I read for it. The intonations and inflections require something special. I’ll say this though: This is one of my favorite books in years. There’s really nothing else quite like it.
Sheepish by Helen Yoon
2021 turned out to be a banner year for Ms. Yoon. While I encountered her previously mentioned Off-Limits first, technically the picture book she debuted with in 2021 was the sweet and very funny Sheepish. Now we’re all familiar with the old wolf in sheep’s clothing gag. Usually we (by which I mean, me) associate it with that old Looney Tunes cartoon where the wolf and the sheepdog try to outsmart one another. This book also follows much in the same vein as fellow funny 2021 book Chez Bob. You have a wolf dressed as a sheep, infiltrating the ranks. The sheep, for the record, are not fooled for a second, but you get the distinct impression that they’re watching to see exactly how this plays out. The wolf is pretty focused on its end goal, and it’s only because it comes to feel a great deal of affection for one little lamb (it tries imagining the lamb in an ice cream sundae, but something about it feels wrong) that it mends its wicked ways. That we’ve seen before. What we haven’t seen is the ending, and I’m not going to ruin it for you. Yoon utilized as more stylized line-based drawing style for this book, along with a fair helping of mixed media. Very interested in seeing what else she’ll be cranking out in 2022 and 2023, that’s for sure.
Something’s Wrong! A Bear, a Hare, and Some Underwear by Jory John, ill. Erin Kraan
[Previously seen on the Readaloud List]
Jeff has a problem. He’s fairly certain he’s forgetting something, but what could it be? A hilarious tale of facing up to your mistakes and friends that will never let you down. The real takeaway from this book is that it has introduced us to the marvelous art of one Erin Kraan. I like this gal’s style! Apparently this is produced with a woodcut/printmaking style so I give extra points for how deftly she’s managed to create skeptical blue chipmunks. This book has some major readaloud potential, but be warned that you’re going to have to practice a LOT. Jeff has this tendency to launch into these magnificent one-bear soliloquies that could make for a fantastic read. The combination of writing and text are also hilarious, which is no small matter. I mean, the slug in underwear alone . . .
A Tree for Mr. Fish by Peter Stein
[Previously seen on the Readaloud List]
A bossy fish who lives in a tree (!) alienates his Bird, Cat and fishy pals. After feeling lonely, he realizes he must make things right. But how? Okay. I officially love this book. Like, LOVE love it. It’s the kind of illogical logic book where the kid reader is smarter than the characters on the page that I adore. And the readaloud potential is through the roof! It’s deeply silly (the pissed off looking fish guests who are in the tree saying calmly “I can’t breathe” just floored me) and the solution is just so inane that I ended up loving it even more. So wonderfully weird. Definitely needs more reads.
Previous lists of funny picture books are well worth seeking out. They include:
And here’s what else is on the docket this month:
December 1 – Great Board Books
December 2 – Board Book Reprints & Adaptations
December 3 – Transcendent Holiday Picture Books
December 4 – Picture Book Readalouds
December 5 – Rhyming Picture Books
December 6 – Funny Picture Books
December 7 – CaldeNotts
December 8 – Picture Book Reprints
December 9 – Math Books for Kids
December 10 – Books with a Message
December 11 – Fabulous Photography
December 12 – Wordless Picture Books
December 13 – Translated Titles
December 14 – Fairy Tales / Folktales / Religious Tales
December 15 – Unconventional Children’s Books
December 16 – Middle Grade Novels
December 17 – Poetry Books
December 18 – Easy Books & Early Chapter Books
December 19 – Older Funny Books
December 20 – Science Fiction Books
December 21 – Fantasy Books
December 22 – Informational Fiction
December 23 – American History
December 24 – Science & Nature Books
December 25 – Autobiographies *NEW TOPIC!*
December 26 – Biographies
December 27 – Nonfiction Books for Older Readers
December 28 – Nonfiction Picture Books
December 29 – Best Audiobooks for Kids
December 30 – Comics & Graphic Novels
December 31 – Picture Books
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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