The Books With No Limits: B.J. Novak, Hervé Tullet, and Storytelling That’s Both Inspired and Inspirational

Here are two articles I recently wrote for the Children’s Book Review!

The Books With No Limits: Exploring Collaborative Storytelling

Most children’s books feature what education theorists call “frontal instruction”: the caregiver reading the book delivers information, and the child absorbs it with little real interaction or collaboration. To be sure, individual readers can make the experience more child-centered by engaging kids in a dialogue as they go. Plus there have long existed books that challenge this model at the fringes, like pop-up books or the little board books with textured pages (think Pat the Bunny).

In recent years, however, a group of children’s authors has revolutionized the process of storytelling. Mo Willems’ wildly popular Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus provides a perfect example. At the outset, a bus driver instructs the kids not to allow the pigeon to drive the bus. On almost every subsequent page, the pigeon asks to drive the bus in an increasingly creative and desperate way, and the kids have to say (or shout, in my little ones’ case), “No! No, pigeon! No way!”

Two new books—presented by JCC San Francisco’s “Arts and Ideas” family series—take this interactive bent even further, one by way of encouraging writing and the other artistic exploration.

The Book with No Pictures By B.J. Novak

In The Book with No Pictures, B.J. Novak (best known by parents as Ryan from The Office until the release of his wickedly smart and funny adult book One More Thing) teaches kids to think of words as instruments of excitement and power. The book sets the stage by having the reader explain, “Here is how books work: Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say. No matter what.” The primary script continues, listing a series of silly statements such as, “My only friend in the whole wide world is a hippo named BOO BOO BUTT.” The genius lies in the asides that follow each bout of ridiculousness in a smaller, less colorful type. For example, after saying, “I am a monkey who taught myself to read” in a read-aloud voice, the caregiver then says, “Hey! I’m not a monkey!” These asides, which Novak likens to a reaction shot of straight-man Jim on The Office, naturally push the adult to ham it up, feigning frustration that the kid has tricked her into saying something ludicrous and eventually even begging to be allowed to stop reading. In comedy parlance, it kills. Kids go absolutely bonkers, punch drunk on a combination of silliness and control.

Mix It Up! By Herve Tullet

The latest from Hervé Tullet, known as “The Prince of Preschool” in France, similarly breaks the storybook mold, instructing children to physically manipulate the book in one way or another in order to teach color mixing. In Mix It Up, the follow-up to NY Times bestseller Press Here, a page has three circles of paint: one red, one yellow, and one blue. The caregiver reads, “With one finger take a little bit of the blue. And just touch the yellow. Rub it . . . gently . . . .” When you turn the page, voilà, a green circle appears. The pages that follow show complex color combinations and maneuvers (like tilting the book sideways) that allow kids to feel like they’re actually producing the page that follows through their responsive actions. My kids inevitably ask to paint after we finish reading the book, an urge Tullet clearly seeks to incite; he even orchestrated creation of a massive mural after his reading, somehow creating more art than havoc after filling the JCCSF lobby with dozens of paint-wielding toddlers.

Again, enthusiastic storytelling can render a traditional picture book just as captivating as The Book with No Pictures and Mix It Up; but as Novak notes, there’s a huge value-added for parents in not having to drum up the energy to improvise at the end of a long day.

A Q&A with Hervé Tullet (Yes, It Rhymes)

Why do you think kids respond to Press Here and Mix It Up with such enthusiasm?

Well, I don’t know. And I don’t really want to know. When I create a book, I do not test, and each book, as I’m working on it, is a surprise. I don’t know how the children will react and that’s what I love to discover when I’m doing readings. Of course, I’ve done about eighty books, and more and more I understand that my books encourage confidence, dialogue. And the style—slots, dots and scribbles—speaks very much to the child, as if we were talking with the same vocabulary.

What drove you to start creating children’s books?

A revolt! When I had my first child, children’s books looked like some stupid marketing thing. There were a lot of stupid characters, stupid childish stories, ugly illustrations, fake tiny children and fields with bears talking to rabbits. I needed to help. I knew books could change your life. So I wanted to help children with books that sparkle, and help the teachers, librarians, educators, in their daily life—which can be very difficult—by giving them a way to change the routine. Maybe to change the world! By bringing them innovative and funny books, activities, and ideas to their work and play with the children.

Do you have any suggestions for parents on how to make the most of reading your books with their little ones?

Just have fun, get involved in the reading, the reading  of the world! The world is a book—look at it like that! Take a walk in your neighborhood as if you are reading a book. Ask, “What’s going on in this house? What is this mark on the sidewalk?” and so on. Children need to understand us and the other way around.

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