Monday 25 September 2023

What's So Funny? By Pippa Goodhart


            I’ve been thinking about what makes a funny picture book funny.

            Lots of things can be funny for young children, and funny for the adults who share picture books with them. Those two sides of the book audience might well laugh at different things offered by the book. 

Getting things wrong can be funny if the circumstances are right. A woman slipping on a banana skin, falling into the pond, then coming up from the water with a duck and weed on her head is funny … just so long as we know that she is somebody fictional who can’t really be hurt, or she is somebody nasty who deserves to be made to look silly, or she’s laughing at herself because she thinks it’s funny. 

Farts, pants and burps can be funny because children know they are regarded as naughty, something to be hidden, and so it seems daring and a bit shocking to air them in public. I suggest that those themes are funnier when you’re four years old than when you’re forty … although seeing a child collapse in giggles at the word ‘fart’ can make the whole book sharing situation for the adult reader funny in itself. 

But I think I’ve discovered what makes for the funniest picture books of all, and that is TRUTH. Not factual story truth. I’m struggling to think of an example of a really really funny picture book which features human main characters, or one that tells of true events. But it’s the emotional truth that matters. The animal characters in funny books are behaving at an emotional level like humans. We recognise that, and it all seems the funnier for human feelings to be played out by animals.

Here are my three-year-old grandson’s current favourite funny picture books –


Oh No, George! By Chris Haughton features dog George who promises his human, Harris, that he will be good, and he does mean to be good, but he is then faced with temptation. Three times we see him tempted, and we’re asked ‘What will George do?’ before seeing that he does eat the cake, chase the cat, then dig up a plant. Tension thrills as George’s owner arrives home! But Harris is forgiving, and George apologises, and out they go for a walk to start afresh. But temptations arise once more. What will George do? To our surprise, he resists the cake this time, and the cat, and the flower bed. But then he is faced with a smelly rubbish bin …


… And we’re left to decide for ourselves whether or not George succumbs! 

Very relatable for a three-year-old who says he’ll be quiet in the library, then can’t resist shouting out loud, getting a reaction, and shouting more. Relatable, too, for a Granny who knows she shouldn’t have that chocolate biscuit, but … What will Granny do? This story is so true to the fight between good intentions and weakness in most of us.


Oi Frog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field has been followed by more Oi books, and it’s no wonder. The humour here comes from a character, the cat, who insists on a rule that sounds almost reasonable at first – that frogs should sit on logs – but soon becomes more and more ridiculous. Not only do gophers have to sit on sofas and mules sit on stools, but lions must sit on irons and seals sit on wheels!  


How does this growing list of rule-following nonsense end? If you don’t know the book, go and borrow or buy it. Its punchline fits perfectly. 



Old Hat by Emily Gravett is a delight of colourful fun that takes us on an emotional journey. It’s a study of the power of fashion, and it bursts that power with the most pleasing of surprises. Harbet has a hat that he loves, knitted by his Nan, warm and toasty, but … ‘OLD HAT’ jeer a trio of others. 


So Harbet hurries to acquire his own fruity confection of a hat … only to find that fashion has moved on.


Repeat, and repeat again, the hats getting more weird and wonderful as we go … until Harbet is so fed up with never being able to keep up with fashion that he gives up, and throws away all his hats to reveal his natural delightful explosion of feathery head adornment. Now the tables are turned.



A lesson in the folly of trying to follow fashion. Its recognising the truth of that which makes this story particularly funny. 

I think that it’s the combination of surprise and fun with recognition of truth that makes for the funniest picture book stories. But do tell in the comments what you find funniest in picture books. 

Monday 18 September 2023

Picture Books Then and Now: A Springboard for Inspiration • by Natascha Biebow

I’ve been playing! I was curious to see how picture books on the same theme might have evolved over time. How have creators added new angles to these themes? How might this be linked to our perception of children? And how has the imagery, portrayal of children, artwork mediums used and book design changed?

Arbitrarily, I chose four themes/topics*:

-       Manners

-       A Traditional Tale  

-       Pets

-       Bedtime


Here are some quick observations that I gleaned from my playful exercise:


- Previously, picture books had a lot more text.

- The text explained the action and followed a more linear plot; books were often more educational rather than entertaining.

- Early books featured words and pictures laid out on separate pages, rather than integrated as we see today (this was largely dictated, of course, by the constraints of design and printing processes).
- Contemporary picture books are often humorous, sometimes even irreverent, and allow more scope for interaction with the reader and space for interpretation.

- Contemporary creators have a lot more lee-way to play with structures and innovative lenses to convey their themes and explore these topics.


Many of these findings are predictable and not wholly surprising, because our perception of childhood has altered significantly since the 1900’s. Scientists have made massive strides in their research on how children develop and identifying their needs. Consequently, this has widely influenced parents and carers’ attitudes towards how to care for, entertain and educate children. In addition, the advent of desktop publishing and digital printing processes has empowered illustrators and publishers to produce books with novelty elements and more elaborate typography and design.




My Little Golden Book of Manners by Parish and Scarry

From My Little Golden Book of Manners by Parish and Scarry

From My Little Golden Book of Manners by Parish and Scarry

My Little Golden Book of Manners by Peggy Parish and Richard Scarry – published 1962

In an attempt to demonstrate good manners to boys and girls, furred and feathered friends show them how it’s done.


How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? by Yolen and Teague

How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? By Jane Yolen and Mark Teague – published 2005
This book hones in on table manners - just like children, dinosaurs have a hard time learning to behave at the table. They belch and make noises when they chew, they throw down their cup and pick at their food. The text plays with irony by assuming the child reader knows exactly how to tell those naughty dinosaurs how to behave!


We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Higgins

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins – published 2018
In this hilarious picture book, the twist is that the main character is a carnivorous dinosaur who has to learn how to behave in a classroom full of children. Of course, she wants to EAT them! Taking the humour to another level, this book challenges young readers to figure out how the main character should behave and appeals to both adults and children.


Excuse Me!: A Little Book of Manners by Katz

Excuse Me!: A Little Book of Manners (Lift-The-Flap Book) by Karen Katz – published 2002

This board book introduces children to “Please" and "Thank You" and “Excuse me” and “Sorry”.


From Excuse Me!: A Little Book of Manners by Katz

From Excuse Me!: A Little Book of Manners by Katz
The book features situations familiar to contemporary children, such as burping at a meal, receiving a special present from granny, or breaking a sibling’s toy. Each lift-the-flap reveal prompts the child with a polite phrase response.




I chose the Three Little Pigs:


The Three Little Pigs by Vera Southgate and Robert Lumley

Three Little Pigs by Vera Southgate and Robert Lumley – published 1965  

This version contains all the classic lines (“By the hair of my chinny chin chin/I will not let you come in” . . .  “I’ll huff and puff and I’ll blow yourself in”). 


From The Three Little Pigs by Vera Southgate and Robert Lumley

The first two pigs get eaten – yes! – and the third little pig spends the last part of the book outwitting the wolf, until the wolf meets his end in the cooking pot.


The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! by Sciezca and Smith

The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!
By Jon Sciezca and Lane Smith – published 1989

In this funny, irreverent version, the traditional tale is told from the wolf's point of view. As Alexander T. Wolf explains it, the whole Big Bad Wolf thing was just a big misunderstanding. Al Wolf was minding his own business, making his granny a cake, when he realized he was out of a key ingredient. He innocently went from house to house to house (one made of straw, one of sticks, and one of bricks) asking to borrow a cup of sugar. Could he help it if he had a bad cold, causing him to sneeze gigantic, gale-force sneezes? Could he help it if pigs these days use shabby construction materials? And after the pigs had been ever-so-accidentally killed, well, who can blame him for having a snack?


The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Trivizas and Oxenbury

From The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Trivizas and Oxenbury

The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury – published 1993

This version also turns the traditional tale on its head and instead of focussing on the three little pigs, the main characters are the three little wolves who are up against the ‘bad little pig’. When the three wolves set out to build themselves a house, they must use stronger and stronger materials to outsmart the Big Bad Pig, who instead of huffing and puffing, uses a sledgehammer, a pneumatic drill and finally . . . dynamite to take down their house! But when the wolves build a beautiful house made of flowers, and the Big Bad Pig start to huff, he instead inhales the fragrance and is transformed, realizing how horrible he’s been.


The Three Little Pigs by Baxter and Lewis


From The Three Little Pigs by Baxter and Lewis

The Three Little Pigs: Ladybird First Favourite Tales by Nicola Baxter and Jan Lewis – published 2011  

In this version, the first (boy) and second (girl) pigs build a house of straw and sticks and meet their end when the Wolf blows them down. The third little pig’s house of bricks is solid, and so the Wolf tries to lure him out to meet him to gather turnips, apples and go to the fair. Each time, the pig sees through the Wolf’s trickery. At the end of the book, as in the traditional tale, he lures the very angry, frustrated Wolf down the chimney into the cooking pot and lives peacefully ever after.




Though notoriously tricky to translate, ABC alphabet books are a great way to introduce letters to young readers and there have been many innovative versions over the years.  


ABC by Mary Kendal Lee  



From ABC by Mary Kendal Lee

ABC by Mary Kendal Lee – published 1958

Written in rhyming couplets for each letter, featuring a boy and a girl.


ABC by Brian Wildsmith

From ABC by Brian Wildsmith

From ABC by Brian Wildsmith

ABC by Brian Wildsmith – published 1963

Beautifully painted, this ABC book introduced children to art as it celebrated each letter. It was – and still is - also notably an innovative, outstanding example of British design, production and typography.  

A to Z by Sandra Boynton

From A to Z by Sandra Boyton

A to Z by Sandra Boynton – published 1984

The alphabet gets a seriously silly twist in this rhyming board book that features animal actions for the very young.


My First ABC Book (DK)

My First ABC Book – published by DK – published 2003

Dorling Kindersley was a trend-setter in publishing non-fiction in a distinctive style – photographs of real objects on a white background.


ABC (Think, Touch, Feel) by Deneux

From ABC (Think, Touch, Feel) by Deneux

ABC (Think Touch Feel) by Xavier Deneux – published 2016

This is an exquisitely designed chunky board book that invites small hand to explore the letters of the alphabet using dynamic, tactile features. It encourages sensory learning through unique cut-outs and raised letters.

Animal Alphabet by Donaldson and Chai


From Animal Alphabet by Donaldson and Chai

Animal Alphabet by Julia Donaldson ­­and Sharon King-Chai – published 2018

Peep-through pages and fold-out flaps create a guessing game that invites young readers to compare different animals, and learn comparison words and adjectives from the natural world.





The theme of wanting a pet is an age-old one but it’s gone through some interesting incarnations, not so different from each other in that usually the plot line is that the child really wants a pet, and the parents object . . . As in these examples:


Pets by Ratzewberger and Phillips

From Pets by Ratzewberger and Phillips

From Pets by Ratzewberger and Phillips

Pets by Anna Ratzewberger, illustrated by Katherine L. Phillips – published 1954

It’s pet day at school and the children share about how they take care of their pets and train them.


I Want a PET by Lauren Child

I Want a PET by Lauren Child – published 1999

Lauren Child’s deliciously funny picture book depicts a child who really wants a pet, but Mum, Dad, Granny and Grandad aren't keen on any of her suggestions! Sheep will follow them everywhere, an octopus would leave eight dirty footprints wherever it went and boa constrictors might squeeze them too tightly.  The solution to please everyone?

From I Want a PET by Lauren Child


An egg that isn’t quite a pet yet . . . but it will be soon. Young readers can imagine what might be inside! 


What Do You Do If Your House is a Zoo? by Kelly and Laberis

From What Do You Do If Your House is a Zoo? by Kelly and Laberis

What Do You Do If Your House is a Zoo? by John Kelly and Steph Laberis – published 2019

Oscar’s getting a pet! But which pet should he pick? And what on earth will he do when they all move in? His house is like a zoo!  The surprise reveal is that the perfect pet is . . . a gorgeous, loving, three-legged dog.




Go-to-Sleep Book (Little Boy) by Helen Earle Gilbert and Frances Wosmek – published 1949

Go-to-Sleep Book (Little Girl) by Helen Earle Gilbert and Frances Wosmek – published 1949 


Go-to-Sleep Book (Little Girl) by  Gilbert and Wosmek



Go-to-Sleep Book (Little Boy) by Gilbert and Wosmek

From Go-to-Sleep Book (Little Boy) by Gilbert and Wosmek

From Go-to-Sleep Book (Little Boy) by Gilbert and Wosmek

From Go-to-Sleep Book (Little Boy) by Gilbert and Wosmek

Simple, repetitive phrasing with a simple plot – all the animals are so tired and sleepy and so is the little … boy/girl. The snuggle down into their warm beds, yawn and – go to sleep!


Tell Me Something HAPPY Before I Go to Sleep by Gliori

Tell Me Something HAPPY Before I Go To Sleep by Debi Gliori – published 1999

Willa is a little bunny who is scared to go to sleep – she might have a bad dream. Her older brother Willoughby tells her to think of all the happy things that will be waiting for her in the morning. Willa finally feels tired, yawns, and snuggles up with her cuddly toy, knowing her big brother will be there in the morning.


Llama, Llama, Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney

From Llama, Llama, Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney

Llama, Llama, Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney – published 2005

Llama Llama is tucked in by her mama, but she’s not at all sure about being left alone. What if her mama is gone? The worries escalate until Llama Llama makes an epic fuss, hollering loudly for her mama! Mama reassures her that even though her mama might be busy or away, she’s always right here in Llama’s heart. With a goodnight kiss and a cuddle, this is enough to get Llama to sleep at last!


Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! by Mo Willems

From Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! by Mo Willems

Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late! By Mo Willems – published 2007

It's getting late and time for bed. Readers must help the bus driver and make sure that the pigeon doesn’t stay up late while goes to brush his teeth and get ready for bed. But the pigeon is wide awake! He’s not tired and instead, he’s in the mood for a hot-dog party! This plot follows some similar parameters as the stories above – not tired, tries lots of excuses, eventually feels tired and goes to sleep – with the added interactive element that is heaps of fun for young readers to join in.


Can't You Sleep, Little Bear? by Waddell and Firth

Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? By Martin Waddell and Barbara Firth – published 2013

This Kate Greenaway-winning story is about Little Bear, who just can't sleep because there is dark all around him in the Bear Cave. Not even Big Bear's biggest lantern can light up the dark enough. So, Big Bear takes Little Bear outsides, cuddles him and shows him the moon, and finally, Little Bear feels comforted enough to go to sleep. 



I Don't Want to Go to Bed! by Tony Ross

From I Don't Want to Go to Bed! by Tony Ross

I Don't Want to Go to Bed! by Tony Ross – published 2017

Little Princess asks the infamous question, “Why do I have to go to bed when I'm not tired?” She tries to distract the grown-ups with shouts about monsters in the cupboard, hairy spiders, and thirst. When she finally goes to bed and the King goes to kiss her goodnight, she’s vanished. A frantic search round the castle finds her tucket up in the basket with the cat (keeping her and her stuffed toy, Gilbert safe). In a funny twist, the princess wakes up the next morning and announces she is going to bed.



Apart from having fun exploring, playing is important for creators to gain new inspiration and perspectives on our work. It can also help us to stay connected to our inner child. And it’s fun!  


*Of course, there are many, many books on these topics, so for the purposes of this blog post, I’ve had to choose . . . but do jump in in the comments to add your favourites, please!


Natascha Biebow, MBE, Author, Editor and Mentor

Natascha is the author of the award-winning The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons, illustrated by Steven Salerno, winner of the Irma Black Award for Excellence in Children's Books, and selected as a best STEM Book 2020. Editor of numerous prize-winning books, she runs Blue Elephant Storyshaping, an editing, coaching and mentoring service aimed at empowering writers and illustrators to fine-tune their work pre-submission, and is the Editorial Director for Five Quills. Find out about her new picture book webinar courses! She is Co-Regional Advisor (Co-Chair) of SCBWI British Isles. Find her at