Category Archives: Humor

Squids Will Be Squids – Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith

Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith are like those bad boys at the magazine I once worked for who nearly always included jokes about Uruguay and boogers in their copy that you knew were coming but that made you snigger anyway. (I’m talking about you, Dave Barry.)  Squids Will Be Squids is a mad take on Aesop’s Fables that even manages to make fun of poor old Aesop. It’s kind of funny, though.

The art is wonderfully wacky, as it always is in Scieszka/Lane collaborations, and so is the text. Every double spread has a page of instructive parable in multi-sized fonts about creatures like elephants, ants, pigeons, termites, rabbits, duckbilled platypuses (Yes, that is the correct plural. I looked it up.), blowfish, echidnae, pieces of toast, Froot Loops–all the usual protagonists in a fable. There is a cogent moral to sum up each tale. An excellent and cautionary moral, if you are of the feathered persuasion, is: Whatever looks like a pigeon and acts like a pigeon usually makes good pigeon pie. (The particulars of that fable are too appalling to repeat.) Another really pithy reminder is: You should always tell the truth. But if your mom is out having the hair taken off her lip, you might want to forget a few of the details.

One moral involving a beefsnakstick and the aforementioned platypus has a conclusion especially relevant in our carcinogenic consumer culture: Just because you have a lot of stuff, don’t think you’re so special. Not your thing? How about: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Or: It takes one to know one?  I thought there was a moment of undeniable truth in the fable about Skunk, Musk Ox and Cabbage: He who smelt it, dealt it. You can imagine how that story went.

There were a couple of chuckles in Squids Will Be Squids and maybe a hilarity-fest for a small boy who likes fart jokes. Or a grown boy who likes booger humor. Or anyone who just enjoys the very mildly outrageous and slightly goofy and is willing to enter the Scieszka/Lane crazyverse for a while. If  you read this with some kids who think you are stuffy, hopelessly boring and humorless, they will get a marginally better opinion of you. Could be worth it.

Squids Will Be Squids (Picture Puffins)   Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith | Viking  1998

I Will Never NOT EVER Eat a Tomato – Lauren Child

Lauren Child is a wicked spirit from a world in which no grown-ups are allowed. She records the exploits of clever children in paintbox-bright collages of drawings, photographs, patterned paper maybe? and what looks like oil paint crayons. Her books and pint-sized characters are delicious–Clarice Bean is among my favorite utterly self-assured little bad girls. I Will Never NOT EVER Eat a Tomato, a Charlie and Lola book, is a triumph of art and imagination over picky eaters everywhere.

Charlie has this little sister Lola who crosses her arms over her chest and looks at him sideways. You can tell by the look she is one big NO. Lola is a “very fussy eater,” which is a challenge for Charlie when his parents ask him to give her dinner. (We assume the parents are too exhausted to parent the mini-dynamo. Or maybe they have power-player Wall St. jobs and don’t ever make it home before bedtime.) Charlie, though, has a few tricks up his sleeve to deal with an immovable object who only opens her mouth at the table to declare what she will not eat: carrots (for rabbits), peas (too green), potatoes, mushrooms, spaghetti, eggs, sausages, cauliflower, cabbage, baked beans, bananas, oranges, apples, rice, cheese, fish sticks–and NEVER tomatoes. Tough customer.

Ah, but Charlie is undaunted. He agrees she should never touch a single one of those things, even as he puts a bowl of carrots on the table. Lola calls him on it, just before he patiently explains that they aren’t carrots–they are orange twiglets from the planet Jupiter. The peas are incredibly rare green drops from Greenland that fall from the sky. The mashed potatoes are cloud fluff from the top of Mount Fuji. The fish sticks are mermaid snacks from the supermarket under the sea. And, according to Lola, those round red things she would like Charlie to pass to her are moonsquirters. Well, naturally. What did you think they were? Tomatoes?

You are very unsophisticated. Charlie is a genius. And Lola is practically a vegan by the end of the book–except for the fish sticks. It’s yummy. It could simplify melodramatic meals at your house, too. Serve it up right before a big salad with a side of whimsy and see what happens. Then go out and collect every loopy book of Lauren Child’s that you can find. She’s really really good. So are moonsquirters.

I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato (Charlie and Lola)   Lauren Child | Candlewick Press   2000

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories – Dr. Seuss

When I saw this book in the children’s section of the St. Agnes library, I thought the title said, The Bipolar Seed by Dr. Seuss. Life can be pretty bizarre in Manhattan but the idea of a picture book for kids about bipolar seeds seemed waaay over the top. Until I looked closer and read, The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories. Oh. Not nearly so interesting. But believable. So I checked it out.

It’s a very sweet book. A Seuss scholar, Dr. Charles D. Cohen, assembled this collection of early Seuss stories that were published in magazines and pretty much lost. Once he had tracked down seven tales, he restored the art and published them as a collection so they would be preserved–and read again. They are charming. “The Bippolo Seed” tells what happens when a duck finds a magic wishing seed and begins by asking for a week’s worth of duck food but is then persuaded to ask for the moon and about 9,000 other things he doesn’t need. Greedy duck gets his comeuppance. “The Rabbit, the Bear and the Zinniga-Zanniga” shows how cleverness can outsmart brawn–and escape being dinner. “Steak for Supper” introduces a wacky bestiary of imaginary creatures only Seuss could have created.

That signature rhyme lets you sing-song your way through a read-aloud and the sum of the parts adds up to wild make-believe that seems perfectly real. “Gustav the Goldfish” is an exploding disaster contained by the freaked out kid who caused it in the first place. “The Great Henry McBride” extols the virtues of dreaming large. I like the common sense and the good cheer of Dr. Seuss. He is as matter-of-fact and off-the-rails as the children he writes for. This rescued collection is a small gift of a little extra Seuss to dip into after your 357th reading of The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who!

The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories (Classic Seuss)   Dr. Seuss |  Random House   2011

A Cat – Leonard Michaels

A cat is not owned by anybody. Leonard Michael writes a meditation on felines that is as gorgeous and full of mystery as–a cat. Not surprisingly, the book of wonderful line drawings and short reflections is called A Cat. If you have ever been privileged to reside in the same space as one of these rare creatures you would appreciate the attempt to capture the essence of cat on paper, in ink. No one can actually do that, but Leonard comes close. It’s clear he has been intimately acquainted with a cat or two.

A cat weighs about as much as a baby, and it sleeps most of the day; but if a cat were fifteen pounds heavier, it wouldn’t seem cute, and it could tear your throat out.

A cat doesn’t look at itself when you hold it up to a mirror. It acts as if nothing appeared in the glass. That’s because a cat believes it is invisible. A cat has to believe this because, when stalking, it has to be invisible in the eyes of its prey. To be a cat, you must be invisible and very real at the same time. Worshippers believe this of God.

When a cat shuts its eyes, you disappear.

Dogs tend to look like their masters, but this is never true of a cat. A cat is a highly particular creature.

Dogs, birds and ferrets can be trained to hunt. A cat refuses to be trained. Superb hunter, it will not enslave its genius for a person. However, if a cat loves you, it may bring you a kill, warm and bleeding, and drop it on the living room rug where you can’t fail to see it, or drop it beside your bedroom slippers so that, first thing in the morning, you can step on it. A cat’s gift–warm, soft, wet kiss against the bottom of your naked foot–leaves a red blotch, like lipstick.

I lived with two spectacular cats for nearly 21 years. They were fabulous, photogenic, affectionate, jealous, graceful, clunky, playful and brilliant. One could fly and she taught me several games she liked to play. One was a puddle of affection and loved to sleep curled up on my laptop. I had no idea about cats until they took over my life. Now we have an amazing and shockingly adorable rabbit. He lives in a dollhouse. He is very aware of his status as prey. Anxiety is a palpable thing for him. He is so covered in fluff that I doubt a predator could even figure out what he was or how to stalk him. Nevertheless, we will not be opening the door to any more cats out of respect for his personal views. He does resemble one of our cats, though, in physical attributes and a certain quizzical look now and again. And he runs the house, a very cat-like quality.

A Cat   Leonard Michaels | Riverhead Books   1995

Stella, Star of the Sea – Marie-Louise Gay

Click to buy from Amazon


Stella, she of the wild mane of bright red hair, the dreamy connection with nature and the unassailable wisdom of  the big sister, is introducing her brother Sam to the seashore. Stella, Star of the Sea, is gorgeously illustrated by author Marie-Louise Gay. And it’s funny. Sam is one long question and Stella does her best to allay his considerable fears and turn him on to the fabulousness of the sea.

Sam is brilliant at delay but Stella is determined to get him into the water. Stella has an answer for everything–even when she has to make it up. Which is most of the time. Fortunately, she is very inventive.

“Where do starfish come from?” asked Sam.

“From the sky,” answered Stella. “Starfish are shooting stars that fell in love with the sea.”

This is a wonderful book you can fall in love with and enjoy on many levels. The kids are terrific. There is real trust and affection between them. No grown-ups are in evidence to interfere with the spell Stella is weaving or Sam’s anxiety about a New Thing. The art is studded with rich details like polka dot starfish and Chinese characters on a sun hat/helmet Sam wears as he attempts to dig a hole to China. Sam wants to know if seahorses neigh or gallop or if catfish purr–lots of opportunities for hilarious digressions with little kids if this is a read aloud. And it reads aloud very well. You wouldn’t have to be much of an actor to make it fun.

The beach has a friendly dog who hangs out and a seagull who seems to own the place and a number of sea creatures who pop up in different places page-after-page. Stella, Star of the Sea is an intelligent picture book, the kind childlike grown-ups and curious children are drawn to for repeat readings. For anyone who’s ever veered from love to exasperation and anyone who’s ever hesitated too long to take the plunge–this is the book. 

Stella, Star of the Sea (Stella and Sam)   Marie-Louise Gay | Groundwood Books   1999

Once Upon a More Enlightened Time – James Finn Garner

Click for e-version


I had the brilliant idea to rummage through a few boxes of books, yet to be sorted for restocking the shelves or the library donation, to dig out Nora Ephron’s Scribble Scribble. Back in the day, when New York City was 1300 miles north and I spent my time chasing after dictators and dining with network producers on the expense account, Ephron’s witty, funny columns about the media seemed very insider and sort of glamorous to me.

Alas, I recalled in the midst of a dusty mish-mash of philosophy, history and misc. that a few of my Nora Ephron and early Woody Allen books vanished into the carry-on of a disconsolate and highly-paid national correspondent who thought his career was on the rocks because he was chasing jefes in the banana republics instead of presidents in the White House. Never saw those books again. Sayonara, Nora. I doubt media-specific humor from the dark ages would have held up too well anyway. And I did find this lovely collection of politically correct bedtime stories while I was hunting so I read it instead.

Remember politically correct? A nostalgic construct. James Finn Garner hit the bestseller list with his first volume of PC fairytales and the second,  Once Upon a More Enlightened Time, followed in the same vein. It’s mildly funny in 2012, although it dates from 1995. But you have to have been there. For instance, Hansel and Gretel is translated into an environmentally-sensitive and gender-free version that requires real concentration, a good memory for the original and knowledge of treehuggers, rampant capitalism and Julia Butterfly Hill. Here’s a sample from the opening page:

“The family tried to maintain a healthy and conscientious lifestyle, but the demands of the capitalist system, especially its irresponsible energy policies, worked ceaselessly to smother them. Soon they were at a complete economic disadvantage and found themselves unable to live in the style to which they had become accustomed, paltry though it might have been.” 

The father is a”tree butcher by trade”, Hansel leaves a trail of granola into the forest and the witch is actually a friendly Wiccan who is ultimately co-opted by a lumber conglomerate that offers her a Vice Presidency with full medical and dental benefits. “The Princess and the Pea” introduces a channeler who rotates among multiple personalities, one of whom is a princess–but the prince is pretty knocked over by the Viking warrior persona and somewhat charmed by the renunciant St. Giles so he marries her anyway, when she is in princess mode, of course.  

Guess what fairytale “Sleeping Persun of Better-Than-Average Attractiveness” is? Right. And happily ever after–even after 100 years–is not possible when Charming believes the awakened one has attained perfect peace and enlightenment and begs her to be his guru. She, being an old-fashioned, 116-year-old female persun, just wants to get married and get it on. Cursed match.  

It was entertaining. I tend to like fairytales that have been twisted and, wholesome intentions or not, these definitely are. I would read the first book if I could find it in the library. That’s where this one will end up when I finish cleaning out the rest of the books, so you can snag a bargain copy in pristine condition at the next book sale in the St. Agnes library basement. Or just download it for your Kindle.

Once Upon A More Enlightened Time (The Politically Correct Storybook)   James Finn Garner | Macmillan  1995

Chomp – Carl Hiaasen

Click to buy from Amazon


Hooray for Carl Hiaasen and Chomp, the latest in his Florida wilderness adventures for intrepid kids. Chomp, as you might deduce, deals with a very large and toothy alligator but the comic romp (sorry, irresistible rhyming compulsion) ranges all over the exotic flora and fauna of the Everglades and the reckless foibles of the flawed human species as well. It’s wild, in every sense of the word. And it’s fun, because Hiaasen’s children’s books are educational and hilarious and this one is no exception.

Wahoo Cray plans to change his name to something normal as soon as he hits eighteen and can do so legally. For the time being, he helps his father wrangle the menagerie of critters that live on their property at the edge of the Glades, tossing nuked whole chickens to Alice the gator, who accidentally crunched off his thumb once, and feeding pythons, monkeys, turtles and whatever else wanders into their “zoo”. Wahoo’s mom is a language teacher who flies off to China as the book opens to make some cash from tin-eared executives so the family can catch up on the mortgage and avoid foreclosure. Not much money has been coming in since dad was conked on the head by a frozen giant iguana that tumbled out of a palm tree during a cold snap.

By the time a reader digests all this madness, the arrival of a reality TV crew and a fake made-for-television survivalist and adventurer seems almost tame. Alice nearly chomps the back end off the TV star when he ignores the Cray duo’s warning about provoking her. The show then hires the two of them to guide the production into the real Everglades to encounter actual wild creatures for the star to wrestle into submission and probably roast over a counterfeit campfire. While collecting supplies for the expedition, they rescue a girl named Tuna with a major shiner in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart where she lives with her drunk, abusive father in a trailer. And then things really get interesting.

Throughout the violence–staged and real–with chopper shots, stunt doubles, razor-toothed wildlife, crashed air boats and loaded guns, Hiaasen delivers a boatload of information about indigenous and invasive species, the destructive incursion of people into a pristine wilderness, the idiocy of same species, and the wonders to be glimpsed when you venture off the beaten trails. There are good old boys—and bad old boys—greedy media types, plucky kids, deluded and well-meaning grown-ups, fortuitous and disastrous accidents and nonstop action. He even manages to sneak in a subplot about vampires, capitalizing on the current craze for the paranormal without sacrificing the fine intelligence and irony that give every incident a delicious twist.  

Hiaasen has delivered another knock-out punch. Hoot, Flush and Scat are his previous books for kids and the discriminating adults I know who have sampled them are as enamored of the formula as younger readers. May he never run out of environmental crusades to wage so we can look forward to many more one-syllable escapades in Florida’s endangered and endlessly entertaining ecosystems. Chomp is excellent. Devour it at your earliest opportunity.

Chomp    Carl Hiaasen | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

Liebestod — Leslie Epstein

Liebestod, Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn

Liebestod, Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn is Leslie Epstein’s ultimate sequel to his risible life of Leib Goldkorn, now a spry 103 and contemplating suicide in the gas oven in his rent-stabilized Upper West Side apartment. I had high hopes for the comic relief of this book—and it came with the promise of humorous treatment of much that Upper West Siders hold dear: whitefish from Barney Greengrass—check; Renee Fleming—check; Luciano and Placido in the same opera—improbable at best but check; Gustav Mahler—check; backstage at the Metropolitan Opera—check; Jimmy Levine conducting said opera—check; enough Yiddishkeit to inspire spontaneous conversion—check.

It was funny, for about fifty or so pages. But then I was over the joke and, clever as the novel is, I plowed through the rest of it. Too insider, maybe. Too much priapic rambling. Lots of current events twisted, and then twisted again, into witty pretzels of repartee. Much ink devoted to the decelerated micturations of extremely old men. Predacious landlords, scheming villagers, misguided politicians and long lost Mahler progeny in miraculous possession of an undiscovered opera by the composer–all of it filtered through the inimitable lens of Leib. Just couldn’t sustain the grins.

I think it is a wonderful book for some readers who will admire its inventiveness and willingly eschew the virtues of moderation. But they are not me. Terrorists taking over an operatic performance worked brilliantly in Bel Canto (which is not a comedy but is absolutely memorable). Not so much here. Epstein has done his prodigious research—he gets every detail of the Met exactly right. He layers on history like nova on a bagel. He maintains an original voice throughout. I was impressed by the writing but, in the end, I didn’t enjoy it.

You should try the whitefish at Barney Greengrass–Amsterdam between 86th and 87th—legendary. But tackle the picaresque adventures of Leib Goldkorn with care. You might love it and chuckle out loud. Or not. I was relieved when the curtain (metaphorically speaking) came down.

Liebestod: Opera Buffa with Leib Goldkorn   Leslie Epstein | W. W. Norton & Company   2012

Bunnicula – Deborah and James Howe

Click to buy from Amazon


The rabbit is an alfalfa and banana addict. Peel a banana anywhere in the house and, within moments, the sleeping head will rise, the nose will go into overdrive and the bunny will demand his due. Open a bag of organic alfalfa hay and World’s Most Adorable Rabbit will do the frantic dance until he can bury his head in a woven basket of the stuff and chomp away.

He is a pint-size tyrant who requires the prompt delivery of a papaya tablet every morning and will pee on the floor of his four-story custom condo—nonverbal communication–if you leave the door latched. This is because he has a second home in the bedroom, consisting of a wooden split-level dollhouse with the furniture removed. It makes a nice covered vacation cottage in which to snooze away a few happy hours and he prefers to do this when there is company in the room, although not company that tries to pick him up and cuddle him.

The rabbit is an alpha bunny, although you might not get that at first because he is all over covered in long, silky fluff that makes it difficult to tell the front from the back. Complicating the orientation issue is the fact that he is a mini-lop so his ears hang down, like the fur. And he is very very cute. Everyone who sees him, even the expensive exotic pet vet, gets all ga-ga about how pretty! and how cute! he is. He is. Cuteness is protective coloration for intransigence. He is a small inflexible dictator and we are his groupies and his slaves.

So I can relate to Bunnicula and even find it funny. It is hilarious, actually. Deborah and James Howe wrote a modern fable about a baby cotton-tailed foundling who was abandoned in a Dracula movie, adopted by a family with a literate cat, two boys, and a dog with a jones for cream-filled chocolate cupcakes. Odd things begin happening to the veggies in the fridge late at night when the tiny bunny should be locked in his cage. He isn’t. And, in the morning, all the vegetables in the kitchen have had an attack of albinism. White tomatoes. White zucchini. White lettuce.

The cat, who reads Edgar Allen Poe and The Mark of the Vampire, notes the bunny’s prominent front teeth and figures it out first. But the humans are obtuse and Harold the dog is more interested in bacon and those Hostess cupcakes. Many hare-raising (Oops. Sorry.) escapades disrupt the moonlit nights of the household. Chester the cat cannot communicate his distress and pays dearly for his inventive efforts to save the family. He is bathed–twice—and taken to the vet. The bunny prevails. But, in true bunny fashion, Bunnicula is cute. Really, endearingly cute. So we know how this story ends. Bunnies always win—it’s in their DNA. Let that be a lesson to you.

Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery   Deborah and James Howe | Aladdin   1996

Orlando – Virginia Woolf

Click to buy from Amazon


Orlando was a very successful self-published book for Virginia Woolf in 1928. She called it a biography but it is really a fictional exploration of the meaning of gender, a mild send-up of the formal biographical detail typically used to sum up a life, an homage to Woolf’s bisexual lover Vita Sackville-West, and a comic romp that represented a departure from her more sober novels.

The protagonist is a young nobleman, born and raised in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. During the course of the novel he is a sought after lover, first of the aging queen, then of a number of potential and actual high-born fiancées, soon of a mysterious Russian princess who captures his heart and abruptly vanishes on the morning tide. Heartbroken, he retires to his country estate where he contemplates the meaning of life, love, poetry and noble legacy on endless walks in nature. When Orlando is stalked by an archduchess who resembles a hare, and is considerably less captivating,  he finds salvation in flight.

Calling on his noble connections, he wins an appointment as foreign ambassador to Constantinople where his extraordinary physical beauty, intelligence and charm win him friends and a new title. But bloody rioting in the city disrupts his boring exile and he falls into a long sleep from which he emerges a woman. Orlando is still Orlando in everything except gender, which fazes him, um her, not a whit. She flees the burning city with a band of gypsies and lives with them until her reverence for nature and gypsy pragmatism clash and Orlando ships out for home.

On the voyage, she discovers that a glimpse of her fabled legs will nearly send a sailor plunging from the mast, and that those legs are now encased in yards of skirt which will place a real drag on her freedom. But she also reflects that she might not mind the role of woman, a yield-and-resist pattern to replace the bluster-and-conquer persona that might be expected of her as a male. She returns to the endless writing and revising of a nature poem she began as a boy and, once back in England, explores what it means to be a writer, a woman, a sexual being with a new orientation.

Orlando was a larky but daring experiment for Woolf. The novel treats bisexuality, androgyny, lesbianism, the constraints of gender throughout the history of English society—Orlando only ages twenty years in the almost 400-year course of the book—the struggles of the writer, the responsibilities of property, and complex issues of identity. It is funny, satirical, and laced with a kind of magical realism that accommodates its bizarre turns.

I needed to immerse myself in a classic after a long diet of mostly current books—probably a reader’s reaction to Downton Abbey—and before I approach one or two self-published novels by e-book millionaires, the formula for the future if literary pundits can be trusted. Woolf self-published with more prosaic technology and left a lasting legacy. Orlando isn’t a thriller and it has no trolls. But it does take risks and is very readable and we can be glad there was Hogarth Press to help it find an audience so we can still read it today.

Orlando (Annotated): A Biography   Virginia Woolf | Harcourt Brace & Company