Two-time Caldecott winner Chris Raschka certainly knows how to make very little readers giggle, and the giggles continue with Abrams Appleseed's revitalization of Raschka's Thingy Things picture book series, originally published in 2000 by Hyperion.
Toddlers meet four Thingies on April 8—original cast members Lamby Lamb and Whaley Whale, and newcomers Cowy Cow and Crabby Crab—and four more this fall. A whale hides in plain sight; a lamb gets dressed despite the narrator's protestations; an unabashedly clever cow shares a few great ideas; and a crab has one heck of a bad attitude. It's comedy gold for anyone who thinks peek-a-boo is a riot.
Raschka shared with BookPage the secret behind the Thingy Things' simple appeal, the artistic inspiration that came via telephone, plus a few great ideas:
How fun to reunite with Lamby Lamb and Whaley Whale! Plus, refreshed editions of Moosey Moose and Doggy Dog are coming this September. Which of these four original Thingy Things is your favorite?
Well, I admit a soft spot for Moosey Moose. This one came first and seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, to have captured my son in his contrariness, whimsy, moodiness and delightfulness all at once. It set the tone for all the following books.
Not all of them came directly from him, of course. For instance, Goosey Goose (“If you mess with Goosey Goose, uh-huh, uh-huh”) was taken down by me almost verbatim, surreptitiously, from a girl hanging on the monkey bars at the Dinosaur Playground at 97th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan circa 1999. When I heard her, it felt like gold falling out of the sky. What a musical genius that girl was.
The Thingy Things books are so great due to their utter simplicity. How are you able to tap into what toddlers will want to read again and again?
Yes, the text must remain simple, although not all the words themselves are terribly simple—“Gluten-free oatmeal raisin cookie,” for example. Then, the words should almost have a chant-like quality to them, that you can easily call out and have repeated back to you. Each page must have a little zinger, a little sting of the unexpected, even if it is as simple as changing “will not” to “won’t” within a basically repetitive line. And finally, the payoff has to be just big enough to warrant our attention for the course of the 24 pages.
It interests me that in Whaley Whale, which in some ways is the most simple and obvious of the texts—it is a telling of hide-and-seek where Whaley Whale is pretty much in plain sight throughout—works as well as it does. I’ve never read this to a toddler who said, “This is stupid, Whaley Whale is right there.” No, toddler readers seem to love it precisely because they are given the chance to be in on the joke from the beginning and get to have the big payoff of saying, “Boo!” to a grown-up reader by the end. Boo!
These silly stories’ word repetition and simple sounds are perfect for children just learning to read. What was the first book you learned to read on your own?
You know, I may actually have learned to read with Dick and Jane. I certainly read those books in first grade. And liked them, what’s more. But there were a couple of books that came before, as I think back. My first school experience was in Germany, in kindergarten and first grade—my family lived in Marburg, Germany, for a year, my father taking a year-long sabbatical there. The very first books I loved were Die Steinzeit-Kinder—The Stone-Age Children—books I still have. I certainly learned to read them, so presumably they were the first.
At that time, the German school year began in spring, so I had half a year of first grade there, and then started again with Mrs. Erickson in first grade in a school in suburban Chicago. I remember old—and she was old—Mrs. Erickson saying to me on the first day, “Do you understand what I’m saying, Christopher?” And I thought, why is she saying that to me? An early instance of what came to be my usual wondering what in the world my teachers were talking about, what is it that I’m not getting?
Cowy Cow and Crabby Crab are the newest members of the Thingy Things bunch, and they’re even funnier than the original cast. How have you changed as an illustrator since you wrote the first Thingy Things books?
My quick answer is I’ve gotten worse. I could really paint back then. No, that’s not true. The difficulty always has been for me to find the right voice for each book. Since I do a pretty broad spectrum of books, this problem can puzzle me for a long, frustrating time. Sometimes I’ve done books over and over, completed them over years, only to do the finished, totally different, final art in about three weeks.
That being said, for some reason, the style for the Thingies presented itself to me right away. As in most of my books, I like to be fairly gestural, which can be hit or miss. I remember once being in the middle of a big brushstroke when the phone rang, and I thought, I should not answer this. And then almost to dare myself, I took the phone and kept painting. I think it helped the tone. I think Saul Steinberg often painted on the phone. Maybe I should start doing this again, to keep me from getting too precious, too worried. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good phone for under the ear anymore, and I’m certainly not going to put one of those robot things on my head. I’ll have to think about this.
Crabby Crab has a bad attitude about nearly everything—but we still love him. What makes you crabby?
See the answers to question four. I make myself crabby. I hate everything I do in the instant just after doing it, so I become too quick to let go of things. Or I try to get a hold on something that came freely and just right at one time, and then I just can’t get it again six months later. This makes me the crabbiest.
September 2014 also brings two new Thingy Thing titles, Buggy Bug and Clammy Clam. What can we expect from our two new friends?
Buggy Bug tells the quintessential toddler joke. It’s very, very, very, very, very funny if you’re 4. Clammy Clam gets shy in the face of adult cajoling and clams up.
Like Cowy Cow, you probably have 100 fun ideas for young readers. What are a few ideas readers can look forward to?
You know, the best idea I have right now, and it may sound rather corny, but as young readers get older you may, if you are like me, just keep finding more and more books you want to read. You really will. I know, I know, it sounds like an obvious and hopeful thing for a writer to say. But I wasn’t always a writer, and I wasn’t always such a reader. There will be movies. There will be TV and video games. But there will also just be more and more books you want to read, books you’ve never heard of and then someone will say, “Hey! Read this.” My brother gave me a book I’d never heard of before. He’d bought it for himself and didn’t really like it but thought I might. It’s called Titus Groan, written by an English illustrator, Mervyn Peake, in 1946. Somehow I never knew Mervyn Peake. How wonderful to find someone new to read. How could I not have heard of him? At the same time, my wife and I are reading George Eliot’s book Middlemarch aloud. Now that’s a fun idea. Reading a big, enormous, 900-page book aloud is fun. Obviously, reading Harry Potter aloud is about as good as it gets.
As to any fun ideas I might have about my own books, I have a few: a book about two rats, one who lives along the Hudson River and is a great surfer, and the other who lives at the base of the statue of Giuseppe Verdi at 72nd Street, and is actually afraid of water. And there’s a hurricane. Or a book about all the residents of a big old elm tree, from the basement to the penthouse. And I had an idea on Monday about a man who owns a cactus store.
I’d better get to work.
For more Thingy Things fun, check out the animated trailer from Abrams Books:
Thingy Things illustrations reprinted by permission of Abrams Books for Young Readers.
Author photo credit Sonya Sones.