From his work on The Office we already know B.J. Novak is funny, and we had a great time reading his book, One More Thingearlier this year. It was when he came to our office for that book that I met Novak and he told me about the children's book he had coming out at the end of September. A picture book format but with no pictures. Huh.
When The Book With No Pictures came in I took it home right away, read it to my seven-year-old and we both cracked up. This is one of those rare children's books that, as a parent, I'm willing to read over-and-ove--and believe me, I've been asked to do exactly that. Loads of fun for kids and adults, Novak proves that even in children's books, words can do all the heavy lifting.
When I was a very little kid, I was lucky enough to experience the joy and connection of having my parents read books to me. I found myself drawn above all else to humor, and especially the sense of controlled rebellion that humor always represented in books by my most beloved authors"”Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and Roald Dahl, to name a few favorites. The world they presented had clear rules and expectations; and when those rules and expectations were bent and broken, the results were exciting, interesting, funny.
Last year, as I waited for my first book, One More Thing, to be published, I would often spend time with my friends and cousins who were starting to have kids. My role in connecting to these kids was always to ask which books he or she would like me to read.
My best friend has a very young and rambunctious son named Bruce. One day when I was visiting, Bruce picked up a book and held it out to me with an insistent expression that I read him whatever was inside, and something occurred to me. This is funny, I thought. Even though I'm the one who can read, and I'm the adult"”he's in control of me, because he's choosing the book, and the book is in charge. This was basically a little two-year-old producer handing me a script. And it occurred to me that any kid who hands you a book is essentially the producer of that evening's entertainment, a tiny Harvey Weinstein telling you, "Here's what you'll be performing tonight. These are your lines, stick to the script; and I may ask you to do it a second time." The kid was in charge because the book had the power, and the kid had the book. That was funny to me. And I thought, you know who would really find this funny? The kid.
The idea started as simply as that: If a book is a script that a grownup is being asked to recite, what script would be the funniest one for a kid to hear? As I thought more about this idea, and looked back at my favorite books from childhood from the point of view of someone who had written comedy for adults but not yet for kids, I realized a second necessary function in comedic children's books that is not present in comedy for adults. Comedy for adults takes the rules of the world for granted - and then twists them. The world has already provided the set-up; all that the humor really needs to provide is a punchline. But comedy for the youngest children needs to accomplish a second purpose, to It needs to somehow introduce kids to both the setup and the punchline. In an Amelia Bedelia book, a child may need to be introduced to the idea that words can have double meanings; in Dr. Seuss books, there is an established sense of order that it would be particularly funny to disrupt.
This inspired me to play with the ways that a book might introduce the rules of the written word itself, leading to a comic payoff of these rules a few pages later. The fun would come from the child and book "teaming up" to make the adult say words that were purely for the enjoyment of the child. And the lesson would be that written words aren't simply captions to pictures: They are powerful on their own"”and they can always be a child's ally. To try to make this lesson even more clear, I came up with a title that I knew would inspire a child's curiosity with its sheer audacity: The Book With No Pictures.
I wrote and printed up a copy and took it around to the houses of other friends with young children and asked if I could watch them read it to their kids"”rather than read it myself "”because I wanted to be sure I had a book that worked as a reading experience for every type of parent. With each reading I made small changes to phrasings and pacings based on the grownup's reading and the child's reactions, until I could tell it inspired the same amount of laughter for everyone, but for different people in different ways. As the book got closer to publication, I focused on the design, keeping an eye out for two purposes: that the page looked beautiful and colorful to a child's eye; and that the size, spacing, and rhythmic layout of the words were so clear and simple that even the most performance-shy adult could read it easily and intuitively.
That's the story of The Book With No Pictures. I hope people enjoy it! There's no sound in the world like a child's laughter, and while there are so many things I can't do"”for instance, draw"”it would be quite an honor to know I've contributed a little more of that sound to the world.--B.J. Novak