Slapstick and Subtlety: Yes, Please by @cordellmatthew

One of the greatest misconceptions about children’s picture books is that these are books with pictures that are meant for children. This is simply not true. I would agree that, obviously, a significant amount of eyes and ears and hands (some might say noses and even tongues) that are devouring these books belong to children. But, in truth, picture book readership is also significantly adult. Librarians, teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, big brothers and sisters, neighbors, good Samaritans, adults who love picture books (like me)… Well, you get the, uh… picture. (oof) So, if a picture book writer is in no way considering the adult in the picture book reading scenario, then that writer is doing his or herself and the adult picture book readers of the world a disservice.

This presents one of the most challenging aspects of crafting a successful picture book: writing and illustrating a book that can satisfy two vastly different minds. A child and an adult. If the story and art are unbalanced and tip too far in one direction, then the whole thing is thrown off. If a picture book is detested by an adult—by perhaps skewing TOO much for the child—then chances are, that book will not be acquired by the adult gatekeeper (if you will) in the picture book reading scenario. It will not be bought or checked out or read (certainly not re-read), dooming it from the get-go. On the other hand, you may have a book an adult is wild about in some adult-y way. But If the book is too sophisticated—skewing too far for the adult—then it will go over the child’s head and will be pushed aside, forgotten, or… worse. (Hell hath no fury like a disregarded kid.)

There are many things to consider when making a book that is appreciated by adult and child, but let’s pick one and tease that out a bit. Humor. I feel like—generally speaking… you know… not selling anyone short—kids often respond to humor that is presented in broad strokes. Slapstick comedy. Slipping on banana peels, farts, getting kicked in the butt, pratfalls, etc. (um… all things I’ve plugged into my books at some point or another.) But if you ask me, a cover-to-cover book of this is doomed to fail. Ask me sometime about my abandoned manuscript involving a lactose intolerant unicorn. Yes, some adults share these same humorous sensibilities (or some might say lack thereof), but a lot of adults are savvy to a more subtle brand of humor: witty, dry, and even a dash of sarcasm here and there could do wonders to even out the scale. A lot of that very well might go over the heads of our kiddos—particularly the younger set—but the older kids may get it and if it’s done right, it won’t matter if the young ones don’t pick up on every single joke. So, how do we do it right? We do it all.

I’d like to use my picture book, ANOTHER BROTHER, to provide some examples of how weaving together big and less big moments of humor might lead us all down the same path to some laughs.

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To set the stage a little, the book is about family of sheep that starts small: Two parents and one child. But things escalate quickly, turning this family into parents with—get this—13 children! I mean… already funny, right?? (And already, with a kinda blink-and-you-missed-it grown-up joke. Remember when “cloning” first entered serious conversation with Dolly the sheep?)

In opening things up, I establish how important only-child Davy is to Mom and Dad. There’s a bit of humor here, but it’s mostly setting the stage info, so the humor is kept subtle and dry. (tender ballad, wooly masterpiece=sock, etc.)

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As the story and pages turn, Davy gets a brother. The humor and language is paralleled but amped up more for slapstick-y kid laffs! (pukes, farts, etc.) Looking at this page, there’s something else I’d like to point out. Sometimes it’s better to let the pictures do the heavy lifting when it comes to slapstick. It can make it a bit more… tasteful?

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As the story progresses and the family grows (and quickly it does), there is a wildly climactic and mostly wordless spread of the multitude of things the now 12 brothers are doing to annoy Davy. You see, they copy him endlessly. I tried to combine both subtle moments of humor here with over-the-top/knock-you-over-the-head ones.



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Moving on, Davy’s brothers mature somewhat and decide to start doing their own things. Ergo: they leave him completely and sadly alone. This brings me to one of my favorite moments in the book. Davy misses the company of his brothers and is trying to reconnect in various ways. He wants to do and like the same things they do, but nothing is lining up. For instance, their distinct preferences in television.

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The inspiration here being those kids’ shows out there that are well-meaning but are out and out CREEPY. (Think TELETUBBIES.) I’d thought kids would pick up on this, but at school visits (depending on the audience and time of day) the kids are usually quiet on this spread. I do, however, always hear some light snickering from the adults in the room.

And finally (spoiler alert!) things are resolved when Davy gets a sister who adores him and copies his every move. On the end page, we’ve got a nice tapestry of sweetness and humor—of both slapstick and subtle varieties.

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Picture book humor is not “go big or go home.” I think we’d be selling kids short by thinking that and also neglecting the adults who will be in on the experience. But it certainly can’t be “play it cool, hipster” either. (I just made up that expression.) Perhaps if we, picture book makers, can go into it with both eyes open, we might be off on the right foot. Just watch out for that banana peel.


• Write picture books not just for kids, but also for the adults who love and read them too.

• Vary the way humor is used in your book, so both kids and grown-ups can be satisfied.

• Always be funny. Even if just a little bit.

CordellM_headshotMatthew Cordell has illustrated many books for children including Special Delivery by Philip C. Stead, a Washington Post best book of 2015. He is the author and illustrator of several picture books including Trouble Gum, Another Brother, Wish, and Hello! Hello!, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book. Matthew lives outside of Chicago with his wife, author Julie Halpern, and their two children. Visit him online at, find him on Twitter @cordellmatthew or on Facebook

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Joyce Wan: Give Your Tale a Twist and GIVEAWAY

Are you finding the ending of your picture book story to be a little ho-hum? Or, is everything wrapped up a little too neat and tidy? One of the strongest ways to end a picture book is to surprise a reader. Kids love a surprise ending (and adults do, too). When a book takes you where you didn’t expect to go, that makes the trip all the more exciting and fun. When done well, an unpredictable twist can turn a good book into a classic and is often what makes repeated re-readings a pleasure. In subsequent readings, the reader enjoys being in the know and re-reading a book when you know what’s coming can be enjoyable in its own right too. I’ve always been a big fan of plot twists in books and movies of any genre for as long as I can remember. When I wrote my latest picture book The Whale In My Swimming Pool, I knew I wanted to include a twist at the end to delight and surprise readers. With a solid hook in mind, I came up with the ending before I even wrote my first draft, crafting the story backwards from the twist.

Creating a twist ending involves knowing what your audience expects or takes for granted. What’s the predictable ending? Then, figure out how to turn it inside out or extend the story just a little beyond the last sentence with an unpredictable turn of events even if it’s only shown in the final illustration. In funny stories, a twist ending can feel like a punch line to a joke.

There are many ways to create a twist ending (some twist endings are as unique as the stories themselves) but here are some specific approaches to try:

Circle Storyimogene
Just when readers think the problem has been resolved, the ending echoes something that happened in the beginning of the story. An example of this is used in Imogene’s Antlers by David Small, which is about a girl who wakes up one morning with huge antlers growing out of her head. By the end of the book, she wakes up to find her antlers have disappeared, only to be replaced by a full set of peacock tail feathers. I used this technique at the end of The Whale in My Swimming Pool when the little boy in my story goes home to take a nap, after resolving his whale of a predicament, only to find a bear in his bed.

Role Reversal
A character is revealed to be someone else in the end. An example of this is Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard (illustrated by James Marshall), when it’s revealed at the end the book (through the illustration) that the ugly, mean substitute teacher, Miss Viola Swamp, was in fact Miss Nelson in disguise and the ruse was a tricky way to get her class to behave.

Challenging Perceptionsmonster
A reader’s assumption of what is true is reversed. An example of this is The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone (illustrated by Michael Smollin) when lovable Grover begs the reader throughout the story not to turn the page as there is a monster at the end of the book. It’s revealed at the end that the monster is none other than Grover himself. The book plays on the fact that readers assume that all monsters are scary and bad with Grover himself building up on that assumption throughout the entire book.

A few things to keep in mind when developing a story with a twist ending:

It’s a good idea to have a twist ending in mind from the start so that you can set up the sequence of events that leads you right to the surprise at the end.  Also, it’s the only effective way of diverting attention away from it all the way through the story. If you’re a pantser, you may have to go back to fix any inconsistencies and to make sure everything lines up the way they should so that the ending makes sense.

A twist ending should be somewhat open-ended and will introduce WhaleInMySwimmingPool-covernew questions or themes. It leaves readers thinking and talking about it long after they have finished reading. At the end of The Whale In My Swimming Pool, readers are left wondering a) where did this bear come from b) how will the little boy get the bear out of his bed and c) what’s going on that’s causing all these wild animals to descend on this boy’s home. As an author, it has inspired lively discussions at book readings and school visits and is a great way to foster a child’s imagination.

Do make sure that your story is not so dependent on its twist that it doesn’t have anything else to say as it will feel terribly contrived in plot for the sake of The Surprise.

You also don’t want the reader to feel cheated or tricked. Rather, you want the twist to make the reader feel as if that’s the best way for the story to have ended.

Picture books with a good twist ending will increase a manuscript’s value dramatically and grab an editor’s attention. It will extend the story beyond the story, begging readers to imagine what happens next. Who knows, it might even set you up for a sequel! What are some of your favorite picture books with a twist ending?

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Joyce Wan is an award-winning author-illustrator of many popular books for children, including You Are My Cupcake, We Belong Together, and The Whale In My Swimming Pool, which was a Junior Library Guild Spring 2015 selection. When she’s not working on books, she teaches courses at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. Visit her online at


Joyce is giving away a signed hardcover copy of her 

image1 (1)picture book The Whale In My Swimming Pool AND an adorable signed print (shown to the right). If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Christine’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.