Right before Christmas, B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures” (Dial, ages 4 and up) celebrated its 10th consecutive week at the No. 1 spot on the New York Times children’s picture book best-seller list. Novak is not the first celebrity to make this list. Last year Rush Limbaugh’s self-serving, often tedious “Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims” remained on the list for weeks. This year there were many celebrities whose titles, thankfully, didn’t make the list. Among those were New York Met’s knuckleballer R.A. Dickey’s message-heavy “Knuckleball Ned” and Duck Dynasty’s badly metered, poorly rhyming “Everything’s Better With a Beard.” It’s pretty much a given that any celebrity can publish a children’s book, but shouldn’t this advantage place more responsibility on them to produce better ones?
I recommend clueless wannabe celebrity writers study the excellent example provided by B.J. Novak’s “The Book With No Pictures,” because, unlike so many others, it deserves publication. Novak begins with a unique premise and conveys it in his attention-grabbing title. How can one not be intrigued by a children’s book with no pictures and wonder how the author will pull this off?
An engaging idea is one thing, but it’s another to keep adult readers and listening children involved. Novak succeeds at this mission equally well with his inviting, rollicking voice and playful tone. “This is a book with no pictures,” Novak begins, and then sets up for humor like any good comedy writer as he subtlety adds the italicized direction that dominates the book: “Everything the words say, the person reading the book has to say.”
The text continues, “Even if the words say…” and Novak, an obvious master of timing, uses an ellipsis to create a dramatic pause. A page turn fulfills his comedic promise, commanding the reader to utter the nonsense word “BLORK.” BLORK, by the way, is written in a large red font and is only the first harbinger of hilarity. This same page introduces a pushback dialogue between the reader, who balks at the nonsensical commands, and a listener, who takes full advantage of the rules, issuing ever-more extreme and ridiculous demands. The delightful role reversal gives children authority as powerless adults read: “my head is made of blueberry pizza,” then sing aloud, and proclaim that a best friend is “a hippo named Boo Boo Butt.”
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Perhaps best of all, this is a book made to read aloud. In the past two months, Novak has read it to thousands of children in schools and bookstores across the country. A YouTube video of him reading it has been viewed more than 2 million times. ( nando.com/um). He has inspired others. Thirty-six authors, for example, collaborated on a read aloud at the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance conference (view their results on home page of SIBA site: sibaweb.com).
As I viewed their fun, I asked myself how often adults have an opportunity to indulge in ridiculous behavior and saw yet another resulting gift of B.J. Novak’s work.