December 21, 2023


Why Did the Monster Cross the Road? By R.L. Stine. Illustrated by Marc Brown. Orchard Books/Scholastic. $18.99.

     What happens when two of the really big names in children’s books, R.L. Stine of Goosebumps notoriety and Marc Brown of Arthur fame, create a picture book together? The answer is that their sense of humor devolves so far toward early childhood that they produce the assemblage of utter ridiculousness that is Why Did the Monster Cross the Road?

     The inside front cover and facing page, and the inside back cover and facing page, are all filled with word balloons packed with comic-book-style laughs, from “tee hee hee” to “giggle giggle” to “ahahahaha” to “snicker!” And the book itself is at that same level of humor. The story, such as it is, is about two silly-looking monsters named Hunny and Funny. Hunny is small and feeling sad and grumpy, so Funny – who is big and not grumpy at all – tells Hunny a series of jokes to cheer him/her/it up. They are all at the level of the book’s title, to which the answer turns out to be, “To BITE someone on the other side.” But for some reason, none of these forays into funniness makes Hunny feel better.

     “What is the monster’s favorite school lunch? The teacher.” “Why did the monster peel a banana? Because he couldn’t peel a bowling ball.” “What is furry and likes to read books? YOU (if you were furry).” OK, that last one is pretty good, but neither it nor any of the other attempted jokes does anything to make Hunny happier.

     Even the youngest readers, and perhaps even pre-readers, will quickly see where this is going: Funny will eventually give up, and at that exact moment, something will happen that Funny does not intend to use to amuse Hunny, but it will amuse Hunny, and everything will end happily.

     Lo and behold, this is exactly what happens, likely not to the surprise of any reader, furry or not. Stine certainly deserves credit for being willing to assemble such a set of thoroughly unfunny but well-meaning monster-focused jokes, but it is Brown’s illustrations that really carry the book along, showing ridiculous monstrousness in all its amusing ingloriousness: the soaking wet monster with six arms, the 20-chicken-eating one that has enormous eyes and giant teeth (and is surrounded by bewildered-looking chickens), the one called Cutey Face that has “yellow drippy eyes, a long gooey nose covered in lumpy warts, and a mouthful of green decayed teeth” – these and others are so much funnier than the jokes that Funny should just have shown Brown’s pictures to Hunny to snap him/her/it out of those gloomy feelings.

     Well, what ultimately matters is that Hunny does feel better by the end of the book, and Funny is responsible for that, albeit not in the intended way, and Stine and Brown manage to show that whatever talent they had for developing the Goosebumps series and the various Arthur offerings is quite unnecessary for them to produce a book for very young children that is, on its own terms, one heck of a lot of fun. Why did Stine and Brown cross over from their usual neighborhoods into this one? Apparently the reason they did – and the real reason the monster crossed the road – was simply to prove that he/she/it/they was/were capable of doing so.

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