Parents who are really into children’s books always talk about loving books that speak to them on a variety of different levels. Often times, they’re talking about the book’s sense of humor – when the writing is smart enough that it appeals to kids on one level, while delivering a barrage of references and in-jokes that only adults can appreciate. (I call that “The Muppet Show Effect.”) As a vaguely obsessive-compulsive geek, I definitely understand the giddy thrill of discovering hidden meanings on other levels, which is probably why I’ve lately become pre-occupied with finding hidden easter eggs in the artwork in children’s books.
If you’ve never heard the term “easter egg” applied to anything beyond the realm of Cadbury Cream Eggs before, it’s a nifty bit of slang that Wikipedia defines as “an intentional hidden message, in-joke, or feature in a work such as a computer program, web page, video game, movie, book, or crossword.” So, if you move the cursor around your DVD menu until you find a hidden deleted scene that isn’t listed on the main menu, that’s an easter egg. If you find a “secret” level on your favorite video game, that’s an easter egg. If you go to Disney World and look for “Hidden Mickeys,” those are easter eggs. Hitchcock popping up for a cameo – that’s an easter egg. Back before iTunes, if you found a hidden song on a record album, again, that’s an easter egg too.
(One of my favorite books of last year, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, was an extremely fun sci-fi take on the world of pop culture easter egg hunting. Cline gave easter egg hunters the nickname “gunters” and, when my daughter is older, I think I’m definitely going to add Ready Player One to her “Books She Will Read in the Future” shelf, if only so she can better understand her father’s more obvious gunter tendencies.)
You can find easter eggs in children’s books too. Granted, you’re not going to be able to press a button and reveal a hidden deleted scene from Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (yet), but, in many of your kids’ favorite picture books, you will be able to find a nice selection of sly little visual in-jokes, references, oddities, and allusions that both kids and adults will get a kick out of.
Since I’ve been obsessing about easter eggs in kids’ books for a while now, I’ve decided to do something about it. First, I’m going to give you a few examples of some children’s books easter eggs below. Some are cute, some are funny, some are pretty innocuous, some are a little odd.
Second, I decided to start a new, open-to-the-public Flickr group called Easter Eggs and Hidden Jokes in Children’s Books. I’m starting small and only posting a few examples right now, but I plan to add more and more as 2012 goes on. I’d like to invite anyone else who has a favorite example of a kids’ book easter egg to either a). email me and let me know about it or b). UPLOAD it to the Flickr group yourself. I’d love to be able to start a cool little, crowd-sourced Flickr database of kids’ book easter eggs that fellow gunters like me can enjoy.
You can find the group here. If people out there want to join the cause and start contributing their own suggestions, I think that would be amazingly cool.
And – if you know of a website or another Flickr group that is already doing this – LET ME KNOW. I spent an hour or so Googling the topic and couldn’t find anything – I mostly just found books about the Easter holiday. But if there’s someone else on the web already doing this, I’ll shut my group down and throw all of my odd compulsions behind their efforts. Sound good?
In the meantime, I grabbed books from the top two shelves of my daughter’s bedroom bookcase and here are some of the easter eggs I was able to find, solely on those two shelves. I know there are thousands of more (and better) examples out there, but I thought this was just a good place to start.
A BRIEF SELECTION OF VISUAL EASTER EGGS FROM MY DAUGHTER’S BEDROOM BOOKSHELF
I wrote a post back in November all about how much our family loved Imogene’s Antlers by David Small. And our love for that book has inspired us to hunt down as many of Small’s other kids’ books as we can find. So, imagine my surprise when my daughter pointed out the other day – after our millionth reading of Imogene – that, on the very first page of the book (and on several subsequent pages), you can see a cameo from the lead characters from the very first children’s book that Small ever wrote and illustrated – 1981’s Eulalie and the Hopping Head.
Eulalie is the little frog doll on Imogene’s bed and the big baby doll she’s leaning against is the “hopping head” from the book’s title. (A little frog girl gets stuck in a discarded doll’s head, which convinces her mother and her nosy neighbor Mrs. Shinn that the doll’s head is alive.) If you haven’t read it, Eulalie and the Hopping Head is a very funny, very cool book – fans of Imogene will love it – and I LOVE that Eulalie was staring at me from the first page of Imogene’s Antlers for YEARS and I never realized it.
ON MARKET STREET BY ANITA AND ARNOLD LOBEL
One of my daughter’s favorite alphabet books of all time is On Market Street, a book written by Arnold Lobel – best known for his “Frog and Toad” series – with artwork by his wife Anita Lobel. The picture book is all about a young boy going to Market Street to buy presents for a friend. Each vendor presents a letter and the vendor’s body is made up by the goods that they sell. So, “M” is for “musical instruments” and the seller’s body is made up of musical instruments, and “N” is for “noodles” and the vendor has a body made up of… well, you get it.
The illustrations are really breathtaking, but my daughter’s favorite was always the “T is for Toys” merchant. And she particularly loved that the toy merchant has a puppet on each hand and those puppets are, in fact, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad. (I wonder if Arnold sketched out Frog and Toad for that illustration or if Anita just had fun taking a crack at her husband’s most famous creations.)
My daughter has never been a huge fan of Holly Hobbie’s Toot & Puddle (I don’t even think she’s seen the popular TV show), but we do have one book from the series in our library– Toot & Puddle: The One and Only. It’s a cute book, but there’s one easter egg in the artwork that actually changes my ENTIRE reading of the text.
For those who don’t know, Toot and Puddle is all about two pig best friends. In The One and Only, their pig friend Opal is annoyed that a new girl, Bubbles, is perpetually copying her, but no one else seems to realize that Bubbles is doing it. It seems like an innocent enough story about a kid dealing with a rival UNTIL I realized that, on a spread set at a Halloween party, Hobbie chose to dress Bubbles in the EXACT same monster costume that Ian Falconer’s Olivia – another young pig character – wore in the opening pages of the first Olivia book. Here’s the original Olivia costume:
And here is Bubbles’ costume in Toot & Puddle: The One and Only:
They’re exactly the same. So, once you realize that, you have to ask yourself – is the whole book one long screed from Holly Hobbie, subtly accusing Ian Falconer for “copying” Olivia from the characters in Toot & Puddle? I find it hard to read it any other way. And, after a few searches on the topic, the only related information I could find was a comment from noted children’s author Grace Lin on a blog review of The One and Only from back in 2006. In her comment, Lin also suggests that “[M]aybe Holly Hobbie is trying to say something about Olivia!“, so maybe I’m not a total kids’ book conspiracy theorist after all.
Mo Willems, whom the Washington Post has called, “the most famous man in the literary world, if you are under three feet tall,” is the KING of the kids’ book easter egg. Almost every one of his works, since his monumental success with Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, has featured some visual cameo from either The Pigeon or Knuffle Bunny or one of his other popular creations. Here is a very, very small selection of easter eggs from just the Willems books that were at the top of my daughter’s bookcase. (His eggs could – and maybe should – get their very own Flickr group.)