The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Sciezka and Lane Smith is so incredibly clever in its layout and in the way that other characters act as narrators, as much of the narrator himself does, that it just begs a reader to chuckle while reading. I was surprised to learn that this particular book had an actual book designer (Molly Leach) who played a huge role in determining how the book would be laid out. I find it sad because I think perhaps the most clever aspect of this book is its layout and yet Molly Leach who is responsible for the layout is not given credit for her input, at least not on the cover. I would argue that she is as much an author to this story as Sciezka and Smith were, particularly as I feel the layout defines the book in many ways, and yet her name only appears in tiny print on the copyright page (which is the last page of the book). I just think it’s an interesting thing to consider - who are the true authors of this book? Are there two? Or are there three?
What aspects of the layout are so unique? You do not even have to open the book to know this book will play with layout and story to the greatest of effects. The back of the book has the hen pointing to the ISBN barcode and demanding an explanation. She refers to the “ISBN guy” as ugly and the book itself as “fifty pages of nonsense”. The title itself is tongue-in-cheek with the play on words, changing fairy tales to “fairly stupid tales”. The cover page has some pretty hilarious illustrations along the left side (including the really ugly duckling) and a list of all the titles found inside the book on the right. If one takes the time to read these titles, one will have to agree with the title - “fairly stupid tales” indeed. All of this before we’ve even cracked open the book. Then we have the hen starting her tale before the cover page and the narrator calling her on it, we have the title page titled “TITLE PAGE” with the true title in parentheses and we haven’t even gotten to the story yet. Everything we know about how picture books should be laid out is being turned on its ear. What fun!
We then have an upside down dedication page, with commentary from our narrator, followed by an introduction by Jack with a surgeon general’s warning that the tales are “fairly stupid and probably dangerous to your health”. Then, finally, we get to the first story, “Chicken Licken” with some truly atrocious, hilarious, downright ugly illustrations, only to have the story interrupted by the narrator who declares that he forgot the Table of Contents and… they fall and squash everybody from the chicken licken tale. And of course, because they fell, the table of contents are a bit scattered, with at least one story having fallen from the page entirely. It’s truly brilliant. And it’s what makes kids love this book so much. Yes, the stories are funny. Yes, the illustrations are hilarious. But the fact that the narrator keeps interrupting, the table of contents crash down and squash people, the hen keeps trying to tell her story out of turn (not to mention the blank page that the hen squawks about in dismay midway through the book), Jack is stuck telling his story to the Giant over and over again, and his story is printed in increasingly minuscule script at the bottom of the page, and so forth and so on (did I mention the giant eats the hen and her bread?), is what makes kids LOVE THIS BOOK. Kudos to Molly Leach, whose name should be in giant bold letters on the front cover.