PSSST! by Adam Rex

Such a funny trip to the zoo…

Yesterday, I kicked off this short series in which I’m going to be calling out three fairly amazing picture books that have been on our family’s radar lately, books that I think are perfect for any bored early reader looking for something interesting to read this summer. These aren’t recent books or hot new best-sellers. They’re just what we’re reading and enjoying at the moment and I think they make for great summer reads. And, in my introduction to the series yesterday, I made an off-hand reference to a note I’d scribbled while looking for books to recommend. The note was “Best zoo book ever?” I was referring to today’s recommendation, Adam Rex‘s PSSST! (2007), a wonderfully original comedic gem of a picture book.

Adam Rex got on my daughter’s radar in a big way after we checked out Chloe and the Lion from the library a few weeks ago, so, when she saw PSSST! on a librarian’s pick shelf, his name stopped her in her tracks. “Is this the Chloe and the Lion guy?” she asked. When I confirmed that it was, without a word, she picked up PSSST! and dropped it into our tote bag full of all the other books we were planning to check out that day. (“We HAVE to get that one, OK?” she sternly informed me. I just smiled and nodded.)

The best part was, once we got home, we discovered that the book took place at a zoo – from the cover, we only knew it was about a girl talking to animals – and, coincidentally, my daughter was right in the middle of attending a week-long summer day camp at our local zoo. So, that weird piece of chance, mixed with the fact that my daughter found the book to be hysterically, uproariously funny, meant that we read PSSST! at bedtime every night for a week. It was a colossal hit.

PSSST! by Adam Rex

My daughter is now convinced that giant hamster balls are the future of the zoo industry…

The story opens with a young girl visiting the zoo by herself. And, before I get much further, I have to mention that this is one of the most visually arresting, hands-down coolest zoos I’ve ever seen in a picture book. Adam Rex‘s imagination is only matched by his tremendous artistic talent, and his vision of a zoo in PSSST! is so original and whimsical and grand that my daughter spent days poring over the details on every page. Details like the ticket booth shaped like the letters “ZOO” or the Egyptian-themed camel habitat called “Camel-lot.” This is a zoo where deer and rhino roam the grounds in giant hamster balls and a narwhal swims in a giant glass snowglobe. This is a very, very cool zoo.

(Quick nerd aside – I’m a big fan of Steve Purcell’s Sam & Max, a cult comic that has been turned into a series of very popular cult adventure video games, and Rex‘s oddball design work and tendency to drop deliciously-skewed details into his backgrounds reminded me a lot of the world of Sam & Max. But that’s just me.)

So, as the young girl makes her way through this amazing zoo, suddenly, she hears someone say “PSSST!” She turns around to see a gorilla looking at her. This is the conversation that follows:

GORILLA: Over here.
GIRL: Oh. Hi.
GORILLA: What’s up?
GIRL: Not much.
GORILLA: Great. Listen. Could you get me a new tire?
GIRL: Why do you need a tire?
GORILLA: My swing broke. See?
GIRL: Oh. Well… I guess so.
GORILLA: Great. Get two, just in case.

PSSST! by Adam Rex

I guess “stranger danger” doesn’t apply for gorillas…

And the girl walks away. And this situation repeats itself over and over again. She finds herself hit with requests from a javelina, some bats, a group of penguins, sloths, turkeys, a baboon, and a tortoise – all of whom ask for completely random items, ranging from bike helmets to flashlights. The girl is hesitant to help, but they give her money (the peacock collects coins from the fountain) and there IS a store that seemingly sells everything right across the street. As if the girl’s awkward interactions with the animals weren’t funny enough, the whole scenario is leading up to a tremendous punchline at the end of the book that I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, the animals have an ulterior motive and it’s very, very funny. My daughter cackled – CACKLED – at the end of PSSST!, and there’s a particular exchange at the end (that takes place one week later) that she INSISTED on reading herself, simply because she wanted the pleasure of performing such a great gag herself. [read the rest of the post…]


We’ve spent a lot of time in the library this summer (insane heat will do that) and, as a result, my list of books that I’m aching to recommend keeps getting bigger and bigger. I literally have a notebook where I write down frantic notes like “Must share this with new dads!” or “Best zoo book ever? Have to tell people!” (I can’t decide if that behavior is enthusiastically earnest or borderline psychotic. I should probably ask my wife.) But the fact that I sometimes decide to write 3,000 words on a certain comic book series I particularly like – thank you again for your patience, dear readers – means that I have a pretty huge backlog of books that I’m anxious to recommend. So, as I prepare to spend a week away at a lovely little cottage by a lake, I wanted to call out three fairly amazing picture books that have been on my radar lately that I think are perfect for any bored early reader looking for something interesting to read this summer.

Quick word of warning – None of these books are recently published titles and at least one of them seems to be out-of-print, so this list isn’t about “hot new reads that just came out for Summer 2012!” These are just three books that happened to fall into our realm of interest recently, largely thanks to our local library and some friendly recommendations.

The Dunderheads

Your favorite heist movie conventions wonderfully packaged for kids.

So, for the next three days, I’ll be sharing one pick per day, starting today with…. The Dunderheads (2009) by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by David Roberts.

The Dunderheads is the picture book equivalent of a really smart, really entertaining, big-budget summer movie. And it’s a wonderful example of an author finding a great way to have some character-driven fun with genre conventions. In the past, I’ve discussed how, before my daughter was born, I was a little obsessed with how I would introduce her to classic fairy tales and folk tales. I was adamant that we had to have copies of all the canonical legends of the past, so I could teach her about all of the big storytelling archetypes, myths, tropes, and idioms that she’d be encountering as a new reader. In my mind, I thought, “How can she know when a picture book is riffing on Cinderella if she hasn’t read Cinderella yet?” While that turned out to be way less of a problem than my fevered “new dad brain” thought it would be, I’ve remained really aware of how my daughter has been introduced to new genres and story types through her reading.

We picked up The Dunderheads at the recommendation of a librarian and, little did I know, that it would serve as my daughter’s introduction to one of my favorite genres of all time – THE HEIST GENRE. That’s right, The Dunderheads is a heist movie for kids in picture book form, and it revels in playing with all of the glorious “heist movie” details, tropes, and quirks that any even casual film fan knows by heart. The Dunderheads was written by Paul Fleischman, a Newbery-winning author and poet, and gloriously illustrated by David Roberts (whom you may remember from Iggy Peck, Architect), and it’s apparent that both creators are having a blast with their “heist caper for kids” adventure. In the jacket copy, the creators of The Dunderheads reference Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven movies and it’s a totally apt comparison. This is a story about a kid putting together a team to right a wrong by stealing something back from a bad guy, and its creative influences seemingly come much more from classic movies (the Ocean’s movies, The Italian Job, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Great Muppet Caper) than classic literature. [read the rest of the post…]


Awful Ogre Running Wild

Wonderful poems about gloriously gross things…

Welcome to the fourth installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, the newest chapter in a weekly series where we take a look at the FIVE books my five-year-old daughter checked out at our local library last week. I’m listing the books in the order they were selected and this fourth book definitely falls into the category of “old favorite.” Every time we hit the library, we end up coming home with, at least, one book that we’ve checked out multiple times before. My daughter loves to re-read books that connected with her in the past and so, when she saw  Awful Ogre Running Wild by Jack Prelutsky and Paul O. Zelinsky sitting on the “Librarian’s Picks” shelf last week, I KNEW we were coming home with it.

I know some parents are hesitant about reading poetry to their children. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because “poetry” is a loaded word for certain people. Maybe, to them, “poetry” conjures images of Sylvia Path, Emily Dickinson, beatniks, hipsters, and holier-than-thou coffee shop readings, and they just can’t get past that. While a part of me sympathizes with that prejudice, the vast majority of me just wants to slap them. Parents, perhaps without them even realizing it, read poetry to their kids ALL THE TIME, whether they’re singing a nursery rhyme or reading Dr. Seuss aloud. In fact, a huge percentage of picture books are actually poetry books – they’re narrative poems with rhyme, meter, etc. – but I guess those parents just see the images as the focus point. Who knows?

But one of the many reasons that I’m so fond of Awful Ogre Running Wild is that it’s a picture book that REVELS in its poetry. It’s a book that proudly classifies itself as a poetry book and announces on its cover that its author, Jack Prelutsky, is the Children’s Poet Laureate. (Ooh la la.) And, in cooperation with renowned illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky, Prelutsky has created one of the most kid-friendly poetry collections ever, a book that wonderfully taps into the Id of children everywhere and turns all things gross and boorish into something beautiful.

Awful Ogre Running Wild

There’s a carbon footprint joke here somewhere, but… I can’t get there…

The book introduces us to Awful Ogre, a giant immature cyclops who smashes and destroys everything in sight. (Awful Ogre actually first appears in Prelutsky and Zelinsky’s Awful Ogre’s Awful Day, but… though I’m ashamed to admit it… our library doesn’t have it.) And Awful Ogre – he’s rude, he’s dirty, he’s destructive, and… he looks like he’s having a great time. Zelinsky does a really amazing job of making Awful Ogre into something distinctly monstrous, but in a really lovely, charming way. He’s a brute, but he’s a loveable brute. In the world that Prelutsky and Zelinsky create, the people that have to interact with Awful Ogre recoil at the very sight of him, but, as readers, the authors make it tremendously fun to watch the Ogre’s oblivious, joyful destruction from a distance. [read the rest of the post…]

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Chloe and the Lion

A triumphant recounting of a storybook disaster.

Welcome to the first installment of What We Took Out From the Library Last Week, a quick look at the FIVE books my five-year-old daughter checked out from the library during our last visit. I’m going to list these in the actual order that we picked them out, so we’ll start with a title my daughter grabbed off the “New Releases” shelf in the kids’ section – Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett and Adam Rex.

I’m a big fan of artist Adam Rex’s Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich (an absolutely gorgeous picture book and dead funny too), so his name was what caught my eye with this title. I pointed it out to my daughter and, after quickly scanning some pages, she declared, “We’re getting this one.” Chloe and the Lion is ostensibly all about a girl named Chloe who encounters a lion in the woods, but it’s really a flat-out comedy, all about storytelling, how books work, and the relationship between storytellers and their creations.

In the opening pages, we see claymation versions of Mac Barnett and Adam Rex introduce themselves – Rex is a multimedia master – and we even get to see the maquette version of Rex illustrate the lead character Chloe. Things quickly fall apart as Barnett and Rex get into a creative squabble, Barnett tries to replace Rex, his replacement doesn’t work out, then the writer tries to draw Chloe himself (he’s a terrible artist) until… as he finally admits, “This book is a disaster.”

My daughter loved the chaos of the storytelling and the variety of art styles throughout the book – when Rex quits the story, he’s replaced by a very different kind of artist and, when that artist leaves, he’s replaced by the writer doing a very bad job of being an artist. So the story is all about the wonderful art of second guessing yourself to death. Once Rex tells Barnett that perhaps Chloe’s story would be more exciting with a dragon (rather than a lion), everything falls apart. Barnett’s attempts to shut down any criticism of his original idea leads to several different artistic versions of the lion (the best one is Barnett’s childish sketch that is painfully ashamed of how it looks), a storyline that doesn’t know where to go (Chloe meets a hilarious cross-section of characters that all seem like they belong in other stories), and a begrudging revelation that, OK, maybe the author DOES need to listen to others from time to time.

There’s something about the whole meta-narrative thing – where characters in a book know that they are, in fact, characters in a book – that just cracks my daughter up. She kept comparing Chloe and the Lion to Melanie Watt’s Chester series – in which a picture-book cat gets into a fight with his illustrator – which is one of her favorite books of all time. The Chester comparison ALONE might’ve sealed the deal on Chloe and the Lion for her and this was the ONE book this week that she actually asked me to read to her IN the library, which, like the Chester comment, is another high compliment. [read the rest of the post…]


The Monster at the End of This Book

One of the most essential kids' books of all time... seriously

I’ve mentioned several times (probably too many times) on this blog that the very first book I bought for my daughter was The Phantom Tollbooth. But, dear readers, do you know what the SECOND book I ever bought for her was? It was The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone and Mike Smollin.

So, with the entirety of children’s literature in front of me, why did I choose to purchase a Sesame Street book, a book based on a TV show,  as the second foundational text of my unborn daughter’s home library?

It’s a simple answer – The Monster at the End of This Book is an AMAZING book. It’s a groundbreaking book. In my humble opinion, it is one of THE greatest read-aloud books ever written, it is one of the best “books about books” in the history of literature, and, personally, I have a hard time of thinking of more than a few other titles that do such an effective job of showing kids how breathtakingly FUN reading a book can actually be. And, yes, it’s a book about Grover, a small blue puppet from TV. It’s freakin’ great.

The Monster at the End of This Book was the first “meta” book I ever remember encountering as a child. I know hipsters throw around the word “meta” almost as frequently as they line up for overpriced brunches, but, for the rest of you, a good working definition of “meta” is: “a term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.” In other words, The Monster at the End of This Book is a book that is wonderfully aware that it is, in fact, a book. And that’s a really, really fun and potentially mind-blowing concept to introduce to a young reader.

The Monster at the End of This Book

This book might have my favorite typography of all time

The lead character, Grover – lovable, furry old Grover – is one of Sesame Street‘s friendly monsters and, as the star of this “meta” picture book, he can talk to the readers, he knows that we’ll be turning pages… unlike most characters in children’s literature, he is fully aware that he is a character in a book and he understands the mechanics of reading books. He knows that, in the act of reading a book, we as readers turn pages until we get to the end of the book. And that’s a problem for Grover because, in his post-modern “meta” world, he was able to read the title of his own book and he now knows that “there’s a monster at the end of this book.” And poor old Grover is afraid of that monster and, to prevent us from ever encountering the rumored beast, he wants us to stop reading RIGHT NOW.

That sounds like such a simple idea, but it’s as complexly absurd as anything Lewis Carroll ever proposed in any of his Alice books. Who ever heard of a character asking you to stop reading their book? And he’s not just asking you – he’s BEGGING you. Grover realizes that, every time you finish reading a page and turn to the next one, you are bringing him that much closer to this so-called monster. So there is this tangible countdown, this almost inherent drama at the core of The Monster at the End of This Book, in which, more than in reading almost any other kids’ book, you are in-your-face AWARE that you’re moving towards SOMETHING. And, by asking us to stop reading, Grover has ensured that any curious kid worth their salt absolutely MUST reach the end of this book. [read the rest of the post…]


The Purple Kangaroo

Believe it or not, but Cormac McCarthy will NOT do stuff like this to promote his books...

I wrote yesterday about how much I enjoyed comedian Michael Ian Black‘s picture books and, as I browsed the YouTube channel of Black’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, last night, it quickly became apparent to me why ANY publisher would want to have an established comedian as one of their authors – they’re INSANELY good at promoting themselves.  Sure, the comedian needs to be good writer, first and foremost, but, if the book is good, the publisher also inherits this wonderful promotional partner, a partner who is really skilled at getting in front of a camera or a crowd and engaging audiences.

Self-promotion skills seem to be a pre-requisite for ANY up-and-coming author nowadays – they’ve got to start their own websites, establish their own social media presence, go on self-funded tours, etc. – but, when you’ve got a performer like Black, who’s had decades of experience at selling people on his persona, you really start to appreciate how valuable it must be to a publisher to have someone this funny trying to sell your books for you.

That’s all a very long-winded way of saying – check out these extremely funny videos Black made to promote The Purple Kangaroo. The first has a kangaroo-costumed Black reading his book and the second is a hysterical look into the creation of the picture book, in which Black plays up his loveable d-bag on-stage persona and wonderfully torments illustrator Peter Brown. Enjoy.


The English Roses

Very, very few readers regard Madonna's picture book as "too good to be true"...

There was an article a few weeks ago on Deadspin – titled “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie, You’re F*****: 10 Tips For Avoiding Terrible Children’s Books” by Drew Magary – that I thought was fantastic because, beneath Magary’s good-natured vitriol and snark, he gave some really perceptive, insightful advice about trying to steer your kids away from lowest common denominator reading material. (His recommended reading list at the end of the article is particularly good.)

While I couldn’t stop nodding at tips like “Avoid repetitive books”, “Do not buy fancy pop-up books,” or “NEVER buy a DK reader book”, I was surprised to actually find myself pausing when I got to Magary’s last tip – “NEVER buy a children’s book written by a celebrity.” (He then adds: “You already knew this. But just in case you were walking by I Already Know I Love You and thought, ‘Hey, maybe that one won’t suck,’ SHUT UP. You should know better.”)

I’d admit, on the surface, that is a fairly good tip. There are a ridiculous number of celebrities who have dipped their toes into the children’s literature arena – Madonna, Bill Cosby, Katie Couric, Billy Crystal, Ricky Gervais, Joy Behar, Gloria Estefan, Jeff Foxworthy, Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Terrell Owens, LeAnn Rimes, Brooke Shields, Maria Shriver, John Travolta, George Foreman, Jimmy Buffett, and Glenn Beck, to only name a small few. (The Atlantic published an intriguing article last year called “Dr. Seuss vs. Madonna: Can Celebrities Write Good Children’s Books?“) While, full disclosure, I haven’t read all of those particular celebrities’ children’s books, I’ve read enough of them to agree with the broad generalization that most celebrities need to realize that just because they CAN write a kids’ book, it doesn’t mean that they SHOULD.

However, the key phrase in that generalization is “MOST celebrities” because, again, if I’m being honest and I HATE to admit this, I DO know some wonderful kids’ books that have been written by celebrities. And, while, yes, MOST celebrities do write underwhelming, self-indulgent, half-assed kids’ books, there are a few legitimately famous people who have written some really strong, savvy children’s titles that I’m proud to have in our home library. So, to add a quick addendum to the whole “avoid celebrity kids’ books” rule, here are my picks for four celebrity children’s book authors who are actually worth a damn.

1. Michael Ian Black

Michael Ian Black

Michael Ian Black

I’m actually surprised that more comedians don’t write children’s books. A strong sense of humor and a skewed worldview seem to be two qualities that both kids’ authors and comedians would share in spades. However, I just haven’t encountered many children’s titles authored by famous comedians and the few I have (I’m thinking of Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld‘s books) seemed disjointed, overwrought, and weirdly reliant on the reader having a working knowledge of the comedian’s on-stage persona, which, c’mon, is an odd expectation for the 7 and under crowd. That being said, there are a few professional funny people who have been able to translate their humor for young readers and, case in point, I think Michael Ian Black, in particular, has done a first-class job in really proving that he’s a skilled and shrewd author for children.

For those unfamiliar, Michael Ian Black is a very funny comic actor and writer whom you know from MTV’s The State, NBC’s Ed, VH1’s “I Love the Decades” series, Wet Hot American Summer, and the Comedy Central series Stella and Michael & Michael Have Issues. He’s also gotten into publishing as of late, releasing a recent essay collection and memoir, and, most importantly to me, authoring some very, very funny picture books. What I really respect about Black’s kids’ books is that he didn’t just take his established comedic persona and try to graft it onto 32-pages of kid-appropriate material. (That’d be like Louis CK trying to do a 10-minute, G-rated set at a Chuck E. Cheese.) Instead, Black took his twisted comedic perspective and used it to create some really fun, silly, and engaging story scenarios that are perfectly suited for a kid’s sensibilities.

The Purple Kangaroo

If a monkey mentions a purple kangatoo, it is surprisingly hard to NOT think about...

In The Purple Kangaroo, Black offers a hysterical riff on the old “don’t think of pink elephants” scenario, in which a very animated monkey talks directly to his readers, promising to read their minds. The monkey then offers an over-the-top description of a crazy purple kangaroo – complete with hula-hoops, roller skates, and more – ends with the declaration that, if you weren’t thinking of a purple kangaroo before, “You’re thinking of one now!” (My daughter reacted to this final punchline like a college student watching the end of The Usual Suspects for the first time. She was delightfully floored.) He also authored Chicken Cheeks, a great picture book about a bear stacking up a bunch of animals to reach some honey – and the majority of the text is just short, extremely funny ways to describe the rear-ends of animals. As the animal tower grows and each creature is forced to deal with the posterior of the animal above them, Black keeps dropping brief phrases like “duck tail,” “moose caboose,” “chicken cheeks,” and “polar bear derriere”, which… it’s a book about finding creative ways to name animal butts – it’s like The Wire for a four-year-old. [read the rest of the post…]


I Want My Hat Back

Wait... I'm in a movie? Really?

Whenever I review a book, I normally check on two things before I post the review – I do a quick search to see if the book or author has an official website, and I do a quick search to see if there’s any video that relates to the book in question. I’m especially interested in the video because I think publishers and authors have been creating some very cool and engaging video content lately, ranging from book trailers, author Q&A sessions, read-aloud videos (which I’ve had problems with in the past), fan-made tributes, etc. Also, since I’m the world’s worst over-writer, I think the video is a nice break from my normal, cringe-inducingly large blocks of uninterrupted text.

So, after finishing my review of Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, I went looking for any accompanying video for the book online and found a strange little mix of the expected and definitely unexpected.

First, I found Candlewick Press‘ official book trailer for I Want My Hat Back, which is nicely produced, it’s very cute – it is an above-average book trailer.

Then I discovered a full-length animated version of I Want My Hat Back. At first, I’ll admit, this video confused the heck out of me. The video – apparently the work of an Italian animator – seemed maybe professional enough to be “official,” but, despite its obvious production value, there were a few red flags that outted it as a fan effort. See for yourself. [read the rest of the post…]


I Want My Hat Back

He just wants his hat back. Is that so wrong?

One of my favorite things about reading books to my daughter is that, through the process of reading out loud, she learns so much about not just language, but also things like intonation, context, sarcasm, and all of those other glorious abstractions that come hand-in-hand with verbal communication. Funny books do a particularly good job of teaching children about those subtle underlying language rules, and I love watching my daughter realize on her own that, even though a character is seemingly saying one thing, you can infer through the context of the illustrations and the intonation of how the line might be read that the character actually MEANS something completely different. And, if you’re looking for an example of that kind of book, you can hardly do better than I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

Named as one of the New York Times best illustrated children’s books of 2011, I Want My Hat Back is a masterpiece of understated, slow-burn humor. Even Klassen’s illustrations revel in the art of the deadpan, giving us a menagerie of animal characters with stony, nearly unchanging faces. And yet the blank expressions of the animals – especially the face of the lead character, a bear – can suddenly convey volumes of emotion with only a slight shift of posture or eye position. Fun with language aside, this is a beautiful book – Klassen’s illustrative style reminds me of an exquisite hybrid of Frederick‘s Leo Leonni and A Sick Day for Amos McGee‘s Erin Stead.

I Want My Hat Back

Seriously, Mr Fox. If you're holding out on me...

And it’s a heck of a lot of fun to read too. The premise of I Want a Hat Back is gorgeously understated – there’s a bear who’s lost his hat and he wants it back. But, out of that set-up, Klassen creates an extremely funny scenario. Realizing that his hat is gone, the bear starts to ask other animals in the forest if they’ve seen his hat. He asks a fox and a frog, and they offer polite, repetitious responses, informing him that, “No. I have not seen any hats around here.” The bear then encounters a rabbit, who’s wearing a bright red pointy hat, the color of which starkly stands out against the muted earth-tone palette of all the other illustrations in the book. When asked about the hat, the rabbit responds:

No. Why are you asking me.
I haven’t seen it.
I haven’t seen any hats anywhere.
I would not steal a hat.
Don’t ask me any more questions.

And, no matter how obvious it is that he’s lying – talk about a self-incriminating witness – the bear doesn’t pick up on it, says “Thank you anyway”, and moves on to questioning a turtle.

I Want My Hat Back

Awww... poor guy...

As soon as I turned the page after the rabbit’s rambling response, my daughter did a brief double-take and said, “Wait… he totally stole that hat, didn’t he?” I gave a non-committal shrug and replied, “What do you think?”, and, suddenly, my daughter’s engagement with the story exponentially increased. She couldn’t believe that the bear hadn’t picked up on the rabbit’s obvious lie OR that the bear didn’t notice what was probably his own hat sitting on the rabbit’s head. Now my five-year-old had more information than the bear narrator and, enlivened by her discovery, she couldn’t wait to see how the mystery played out. [read the rest of the post…]


The first thing you should know about 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore is that – if a book can make me laugh with its title alone, there’s a 80% chance that I’m either going to buy it or, at the very least, borrow it from the library and keep it until I incur late fees. It might seem immature to be such an easy sell, to be so willing and eager to literally judge a book by its cover, but if an author can make me smirk with something as basic as a book title, that’s an accomplishment I can appreciate. Heck, I believe that the innate power of a killer title is the primary reason why Adam Mansbach’s Go the F**k to Sleep was such a sensation last year. When you encounter a title like that, how can you NOT want to read that book?

17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore

17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore

And, I’ll admit, it was totally the title that sold me on 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore. I was at the annual American Library Association Conference last year, walked past a table displaying Jenny Offill and Nancy Carpenter’s picture books, and the featured titles alone caused me to stop in my tracks and turn around. (The pair has another book, 11 Experiments That Failed, that also sold me on its title alone.)

17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore

Admit it. This is kind of a genius prank, isn't it?

As the title hints, 17 Things is a very, very funny picture book, which falls decidedly into the “Kids Behaving Badly” genre of children’s books. Well, “behaving badly” might be a little harsh, but the protagonist of 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore is definitely a grade-A hellraiser. She’s precocious, stubborn, obstinate, and extremely self-possessed. And I think that’s a wonderful thing to see in a kid’s book.

Our unnamed narrator walks us through the “17 things” she’s no longer allowed to do anymore and, as we learn more about her past offenses and the related fallout, personally, I think it’s hard not to fall in love with her. Her list of “things” starts out slow:

I had an idea to staple my brother’s hair to his pillow.
I am not allowed to use the stapler anymore.

It’s a hilarious scenario, which is made even funnier by Nancy Carpenter’s pitch-perfect illustrations. I actually think that 17 Things I’m Not Allowed to Do Anymore is one of the most visually striking picture books we own. Carpenter composes wonderfully comic illustrations for the main characters, but she also creates this fantastically tactile world around them by digitally building their environments out of real-life objects. The backgrounds of the page-spreads are sometimes sheets of notebook paper, sometimes a child’s painting, or sometimes pieces of fabric. In the stapler pages, for example, Carpenter inserts real pictures of staplers and staples into the collage-style page-spreads. It’s original and extremely cool. It almost reminds me of a hybrid of Tony Fucile’s illustrations in Bink & Gollie and Lane Smith’s collages in Cowboy and Octopus. (BTW, both of those books are incredbly awesome.) [read the rest of the post…]