“To me, the No. 1 job of a children’s-book author is to be on the kid’s side. The book should feel like their friend, their ally, their partner in crime,” says the writer, director, and actor (Ryan from The Office). It’s a strategy lurking not far from the surface of all of Novak’s projects, and, arguably, what he owes much of the success of his humor to. “I believe that’s why some of my favorite classic children’s books were written by people without kids: people like Dr. Seuss, H. A. and Margret Rey, Maurice Sendak,” he adds. “Dr. Seuss doesn’t really care if the house gets cleaned up, you know? H. A. and Margret Rey aren’t anxious about Curious George running through a hospital—not their problem. That’s how kids pick up the idea that books are something for them,” he says. Not having kids has not stopped Novak from entering the children’s-book sphere, either; on the fifth anniversary of his best-selling The Book with No Pictures, a fill-in-the-blanks companion, My Book with No Pictures, is out now from Dial Books. Here, Novak recommends the children’s books that make lively use of the “partner in crime” approach.
The Monster at the End of This Book, by Jon Stone and Michael Smollin
Meta-humor has always been instinctively exciting to me: the idea that there’s a whole level above what everyone else is taking at face value. Jon Stone and Michael Smollin’s book introduces this idea—that a character in a book might be self-aware about the fact that he’s in the book—in the sweetest and gentlest of ways, with a familiar character and lots of warm and interactive humor. A classic.
Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book: A Primer for Adults Only, by Shel Silverstein
Very important: this is for kids who are old enough to be “in on the joke.” I was around 9 or 10 when my father showed me this book, along with a careful, hush-toned explanation: it’s a parody of a kids’ book, written for adults. (In addition to writing books for kids, Silverstein was a cartoonist and songwriter.) It was a thrill to feel that my dad trusted me to know the difference between parody and sincerity, and that he was welcoming me into a more grown-up sense of humor.
We Are in a Book!, by Mo Willems
Kids plow right through the Mo Willems canon, and understandably so —great humor, great characters, and great rhythms, with consistently creative yet simple visuals. This one, in the “Elephant & Piggie” series, takes a step back to contemplate things on a bigger level.