March 02, 2017


I Don’t Know What to Call My Cat. By Simon Philip. Illustrated by Ella Bailey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $16.99.

Laugh-Out-Loud Awesome Jokes for Kids. By Rob Elliott. Harper. $4.99.

     No profundity required. Sometimes little things are all that is necessary to create a book that kids will find a lot of fun. Take, for example, the matter of naming a pet. It is a mundane occurrence, no big deal, nothing to get worked up about. But Simon Philip blows it entirely out of proportion in I Don’t Know What to Call My Cat, and the result is delightful. Ella Bailey sets the tone for the book with wonderful front and back covers that show the faces of cats of all types, colors and dispositions (from sleepy to devilish to eyepatched to human-mustached to Egyptian to hat-wearing to bow-tied and many more) – each given its own appropriate name. But what is the name of the cat that turns up on a little girl’s doorstep one day, complete with umbrella, violin case and small travel bag, and decides to stay? The cat settles into life with the little girl without difficulty, taking over pretty much everything in the house, as cats will. But the girl cannot figure out what to call the cat. She tries the simple “Kitty,” but when she calls out that name, she ends up surrounded by felines from all over. She tries “Princess High-and-Mighty” and dresses the cat accordingly (and hilariously), which leads to the cat climbing a high lamp to get away from the accouterments of royalty. She tries a whole batch of more-straightforward names, but none of them fits – and besides, they are all girl names, and it turns out that the cat is a boy, which only makes the little girl’s life harder. “Mr. Maestro” almost works – it does well with the violin that the cat plays – but when the girl adds her own very different version of music to what the cat is playing, the cat throws off his fancy dress and runs away. Now this “name” book becomes a “search” book, and the quest includes a trip to the zoo, which takes the book in an entirely new direction: a gorilla follows the little girl home and becomes her new pet. And he is easy to name: he paints pictures and signs them “by Steve.” The girl’s outings with Steve are tremendously funny, being filled with cats and catlike figures of all types, with one particular cat (which readers will notice when they look carefully) giving the girl “the feeling we were being watched.” Sure enough, the cat came back – disguised with a mustache and bowler hat – and arranged for Steve to be returned to the zoo. And this time he is sporting a collar with his name, and that name, unsurprisingly, turns out to be Tricky. Misunderstanding to the end, the little girl says the name fits because “he was very tricky to name,” but the cat, winking as he plays his fiddle, knows that the name fits because he is a real trickster – an entirely suitable ending to a book that has one additional bit of cleverness in store: the inside front covers show fish and fishbones (cat food), while the inside back covers show whole and partly peeled bananas (gorilla food). I Don’t Know What to Call My Cat turns out to be silly and exceedingly clever at the same time.

     Much more straightforward and surface-level, Rob Elliott’s latest (+++) collection of groaners and knock-knocks, Laugh-Out-Loud Awesome Jokes for Kids, follows in the well-worn path of Elliott’s other joke collections. It is a small, light book, easy to carry around, containing an occasional picture of a child or children playing in a way unrelated to the text. The text itself is simply a series of jokes that kids in kindergarten through first or second grade may find amusing and may enjoy telling their friends, although hopefully not too many times. “Why did the boy stop carving the stick? He was a whittle tired.” “Where does a sick sailor go? To the dock-tor.” “What can you break without touching it? A promise.” “Where do cows go for lunch? The calf-eteria.” “Why was the oak tree so proud of his heritage? Because his roots ran deep.” “How does an artist cross the river? He uses a drawbridge.” Pretty much everything here is on the same level, and there is little to distinguish these “awesome” jokes from ones in other Elliott collections with other titles. The books seem mainly designed for kids who aspire to be the class clown, or provide a comedy routine for a school play. Certainly they are not the sort of material that family members would sit still for, at least for very long. And it is hard to see kids using them “spontaneously” (from memory, that is) with many of their peers, although a child who does like these jokes is likely to have friends who will enjoy them as well. These Elliott collections are quite popular, so clearly they have hit a nerve, or tickled one, or something along those lines. Whether “you’ve never laughed so hard in your life,” as the back cover puts it, is an accurate statement, seems questionable. But again, it may depend on who is laughing and under what circumstances. Some adults and older kids, for example, may be laughing at the occasional mistake that crops up in the jokes. For instance, “Why did the egg get kicked out of the comedy club? He was telling bad yokes.” Well, maybe, but for this to be a joke rather than a misspelling, it should be “bad yolks.” If you find that a laugh-out-loud, awesome error, then you may be a candidate for enjoying Laugh-Out-Loud Awesome Jokes for Kids.

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