Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce the fifth book in my collection of inspiring children’s books. This time it’s going to be one of my personal childhood favourites – a book straight from the 90s!
Badge of greatness for the hilariously odd stories and extraordinarily entertaining design
“A long time ago, people used to tell magical stories of wonder and enchantment. Those stories were called Fairy Tales. Those stories are not in this book. The stories in this book are almost Fairy Tales. But not quite. The stories in this book are Fairly Stupid Tales.”
The memory of my dad reading this book to my 7-year-old sister and my 9-year-old self is one of the clearest childhood memories I have about books. The reading experience of this one was quite special for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was written in English, so my parents simultaneously translated it to us. Secondly, the stories were so amusing and the design was so playful that I can still vividly picture us sitting on a bed looking at the graphic details and laughing at them together. This book has been incredibly dear to me ever since – so much so that it’s pretty much impossible to look at it objectively without walking down the memory lane!
The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales is a collection of parodies of popular children’s stories. The stories are tied together through some reappearing characters and the narrator Jack, who introduces the stories and deals with the rest of the cast.
The stories in the book are extremely funny to begin with, but they would not make such a strong impact without the expressive illustrations AND the design. It’s typically said that it’s the combination of text and illustrations that either makes or breaks a children’s book. However, in this case the design plays a key role as well, bringing all the different elements together into an all-around amusing entity. In fact, the author of the book, Jon Scieszka, wrote an insightful article called “Design Matters”, which shows first hand what a difference Molly Leach’s designs made for The Stinky Cheese Man and some other books.
And what about the characters? Well, they exaggerated and very outspoken, both in text and images. There’s dissatisfied, nagging Little Red Hen and a truly crazy-looking Ugly Duckling, just to mention a few. Created by an acknowledged illustrator Lane Smith, the characters show a range of strong emotions from fearful to angry, disappointed, greedy and surprised. It’s very interesting to observe how Lane Smith has translated these feelings into the illustrations using a variety of techniques from painting to collage. And here’s a fun fact: Lane Smith and the book’s designer Molly Leach are actually a couple, who have collaborated on many of the books written by Jon Scieszka. Quite a super trio, I would say! When asked about their working process, Lane answered: “Jon writes a story, gives it to me, I work out the art, give it to Molly, she works out the type then we all get together and tweak stuff. Then we turn it in.” (Quote from www. blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings)
I keep on finding myself drawn to books that are charmingly absurd. This is a realization that has led to some self-reflection: when I am working on my own story ideas (yep, I’ve got a couple!), I tend to be Very Serious about it. Naturally, I want to bring my stories to life in the best way possible, which often leads me to just thinking and doing research instead of actually creating anything. It feels my stories are in danger of becoming watered-down by my over-analytical approach. I should definitely try to keep the process more light-hearted and leave some space for absurdities. After all, I can relate to this thought of Lane Smith:
“I make the kinds of books that I liked as a kid. I don’t like ordinary, middle-of-the-road books. I like funny, odd books that excite and challenge a child. There are enough people doing nice books about manners and feelings and magical unicorns. I do not do those kinds of books.” Quote from www.lanesmithbooks.com