There are some picture books that hit you right in the funny bone. This is a mighty feat, because humor can be tricky. Authors do best to avoid being too treacly about the whole affair or looking like they’re trying too hard. The great James Marshall once said that when it comes to humor, authors can’t call attention to themselves. It must be as effortless as a balloon in the air, he said. “You can’t show how hard you work.”
This is precisely what Rowboat Watkins does to great effect in Pete with No Pants, illustrated in his singularly unconventional style. Watkins gets out of his own way and lets the story take the stage. And that story is all about Pete, a young, gleefully uninhibited elephant. If you regularly spend time with preschoolers, you will recognize that Watkins nails the whims and capricious natures of young children.
Pete, being an elephant, is big, gray and pants-less. So are boulders. He is gray, puffy and pants-less. So are clouds. He’s also gray, “nuts about acorns” and pants-less. So are squirrels! Pete spends a day of play deciding to be those things. Descartes would be proud of the philosophical inquiry going on here: Pete doesn’t pretend to be these things; he decides to take on various personae.
Pete gets frustrated as he looks for a friend: The boulders are mute, and the squirrels (who make a series of funny asides, such as “there goes that boulder with pants again”) decide he’s a boulder and run off. Is anyone ever going to answer Pete’s knock-knock jokes?
Cue Pete’s mother. Given that she has repeatedly brought him his pants, she knows he wants a partner in play. So, off they go, running, sharing knock-knock jokes. “It’s me!” Pete declares as the punchline to one of them, content to be himself for a moment, happy to be his mother’s son. This wise, savvy mom is the beating heart of this very funny story.
It’s warm, playful and bursting with personality. Good luck prying this book out of children’s hands.
Julie Danielson features authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog.