Wednesday, December 3

Knuckleheads


by Joan Holub
illustrated by Michael Slack
Chronicle Books 2008

Oh, I get it. The character's heads are all made from hands. Knuckleheads.

No, wait. I don't get it. Aside from all the obvious punning around -- Thumbelina is really a thumb. Handerella in love with the handsome Finger Prints -- why do this? Remove the gags and what you are left with is a second-rate attempt at retelling fairy tales the way Jon Scieszka did over a decade ago with The Stinky Cheese Man. Hold up, let me look at this again.

Nope, didn't work for me a second time. Or a third.

I think the problem is that it's trying too hard to be clever when it should be focusing that attention on making all that cleverness entertaining. If you want to use puns and wordplay to tell a story you can't neglect the fact that you still have a story to tell. Merely hanging verbal gymnastics on truly tired fairy tales isn't enough(and, really, at this point kids probably know more about classic fairy tales then have actually read the originals), you need to apply that same creativity to the stories themselves.

The reason The Stinky Cheese Man works is because it is a reinvention of the story. You could make an entire collection of fairy tale updates using pigs and call it "The Gingerbread Ham and Other Curly Tails" and it might appear clever (Huh, I just made that up! That was easy! I should write a children's book!) but if it's just the original story in a pig suit, well, what's the point? You see what I'm saying?

Yes, Knuckleheads is chock full of cleverness, probably more cleverness per page than any number of books out there right now. It just doesn't entertain as a collection of stories. If this had been a collection of illustrated puns that were thematically linked I wouldn't have any qualms. It's the unnecessary layer of fairy tales forced to lend some legitimacy to the proceedings that doesn't work.

Listen, kids don't always need a story. Sometimes they like jokes and wordplay for their own sake. When they go to the park and play they don't always need rules, or have to have elaborate equipment to have fun. Sometimes they play for the sake of playing. What's wrong with that in picture books every now and then?
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