As this surreal school year marches on, I’m amazed by how quickly my teacher and librarian colleagues continue to adapt to the realities in their buildings, and by how many inventive solutions they have created to serve their students. In the library, which I share with a third-grade class this year, we’ve pivoted to a pop-up library model, delivering books in hallways throughout our campus.
Although it’s not quite the same as having students excitedly browsing our library displays and eagerly lining up at the desk to check out their choices, it will do for now.
The picture book format, with its interrelationship between art and text, presents many possibilities for humor. Cartoon-style art (think William Steig and James Marshall) proclaims its intention clearly. More subtle humor arrives in the form of verbal or visual irony, a hallmark of Rosemary Wells’ Max and Ruby books. Subversion of form itself and meta-narrative are more recent expressions of humor, most notably in David Wiesner’s Caldecott Medal-winning The Three Pigs. The titles that follow showcase humor in its magnificent and much-needed variety.
Let’s start off with the gold standard: Officer Buckle and Gloria, written and illustrated by Peggy Rathmann. This first laugh-out-loud picture book to be awarded the Caldecott Medal subverts the usual illustrations-enhancing-text convention with a visual plot that tells an entirely opposite story from the deadpan text. Officer Buckle’s earnest safety presentations are undermined in riotous fashion by his canine companion, Gloria.
I’m Bored by Michael Black, illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi. Our heroine, a beguiling child in pigtails, scoffs at a potato until - holy moly - it announces that it is also bored. Her attempts at amusing the unimpressed tuber grow ever more outrageous, punctuated by Ohi’s sly and exuberant artwork.
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin. This title has it all, folks. Expressive watercolor drawings? Check. An onomatopoeia-filled refrain? Check. Dramatic tension? Most definitely. A barnyard strike?!? Wait, what? Labor-management relations is not a common theme in picture books (not to mention on a farm), but this exuberant watercolor art by Lewin earned her a Caldecott Honor - and a place on my “sure-fire winner” readaloud list.
A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee. Best friends James and Eamon tolerate their week at nature camp as described in straightforward text, but the real action - and fun - happens in the boys’ off hours. Frazee’s boisterous pencil and gouache illustrations underscore this hilarious counterpoint. A Caldecott Honor book, and the winner of Pike’s annual Mock Caldecott Award.
That’s (Not) Mine by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant. Two creatures who both want to sit in the same chair use increasingly outrageous methods to outsmart each other. The large typeface and bold illustrations show wonderfully to a group.
The Upper Case: Trouble in Capital City by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald. The dynamic duo behind 7 Ate 9: The Untold Story is back with another shamelessly pun-filled escapade, wherein Private I (get it?) is hot on the trail of the town’s missing capital letters. The retro mixed-media illustrations bring an extra punch of humor. Great for older students, who can really appreciate the grammatical double-entendres.
A Big Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin. Sometimes, quiet and warm-hearted humor is just the thing. After promising her mother that she won’t touch the Big Mooncake in the night sky, Little Star pat-pat-pats from her bed to nibble, nibble (yum!) on the oversized tasty treat. Lin’s luminous gouache illustrations show Little Star’s mischievous jaunts against a rich black background. A Caldecott Honor book, and an excellent #OwnVoices addition to science units about the moon and planets.
Escargot by Dashka Slater, illustrated by Sydney Janson. A cheerful, somewhat egotistic and food-snobbish snail exhorts the reader to choose him as their favorite animal as he glides s-l-o-w-l-y along in search of a salad “with a few croutons and a light vinaigrette.” Break out your French accent for this adorable read-aloud.
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, written and illustrated by Mo Willems. It’s hard to believe that this literary bus driver wannabe has been around for almost twenty years. Every time I read this Caldecott Honor book aloud, children spontaneously respond to Pigeon’s increasingly frantic wheelings to drive the bus with a resounding “NO,” accompanied by gales of laughter when he, like Moose, eventually pitches a mighty fit.