B.J. Novak, a standup comedian, director, and actor known for his role as Ryan Howard on The Office, for which he was also writer and executive producer, added children’s author to his credits in 2014, when he published The Book with No Pictures. Novak gives an oft-repeated line in that book—“This is so silly”—a twist in a new interactive companion, My Book with No Pictures. Due from Dial this month with a 250,000-copy first printing, this fill-in-the-blank paperback puts kids in control of the silliness as they compose their own stories with freedom to make them as preposterous as they like. Young readers’ affinity for the nonsensical is underscored by the success of Novak’s original words-only book, which spent a combined 164 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, is published in 26 languages, and has a global in-print total of two million copies. The author spoke with PW about his latest publishing venture and his observations of kids’ benignly subversive humor.
What was the genesis of your original pictureless picture book—and what sparked its follow-up?
The point—and the appeal—of The Book with No Pictures is largely about giving kids power over their parents who are reading the story aloud—and listening to them say things like “BooBoo Butt” against their will. To children, words are too often about authority being imposed on them—words come to them as rules and explanations. The idea that words can be something they can use for their own power is exciting—and that’s the message I want to send them.
The new book takes the premise of the first a step further and gives kids a chance to explore the power of their own words. It was suggested by my editor, Lauri Hornik, and I thought it was a charming idea. I ran it by my dad [William Novak], who is an author, and he loved the concept. I think what is missing in many children’s books—and in a lot of what is taught in schools—is a sense of actual mischief. I love the idea of kids writing stories that are rebellious and prank-like, and it’s very exciting to give them tools to do that. And I didn’t want My Book with No Pictures to be at all intimidating, so I included a few suggestions, printed in small type, that kids can choose to copy if they don’t want to come up with their own stories.
Is it gratifying to bring your comedic skills to a younger audience?
It is. Over the past five years, since the first book was published, I’ve visited many elementary schools across the country, and have learned that kids at that age have the same universal appreciation for humor—no matter where they live. And I’ve also seen that kids and adults have a very similar, innate sense of comedy and comic timing. In The Office, the biggest laugh does not come from hearing Dwight say something ridiculous—it comes from watching Jim’s reaction to it. Children and adults share an appreciation of that display of anarchy. I find it very satisfying to give kids that feeling of power as they listen to grownups making fools of themselves reading the words of my books!
How did you manage to get into the heads of picture (or non-picture) book readers when you set out writing for them?
It wasn’t that difficult. I don’t have kids myself, though I do want them someday. When the first book came out, people asked me, “How could you write this book without having kids?” The truth is that some of my favorite children’s authors—like H.M. and Margret Rey and Dr. Seuss—didn’t have children of their own. I think too many times the goal of parents reading to children is either teaching them something or getting them to fall asleep. I don’t want kids to be read to in order to learn something or to fall asleep! Instead, I want them to enjoy listening to the story of Curious George causing mayhem at the hospital or hearing about the Cat in the Hat destroying his hosts’ house. I’m not interested in the mindset of parents—they can get their kids to sleep on their own. When it comes to reading to kids and writing for kids, I am entirely on their side.
Given the enthusiastic reception worldwide to The Book with No Pictures, isn’t it safe to assume that kids—and even their parents—appreciate that stance?
I guess so! When I thought about the book reaching two million copies sold internationally, I decided to figure out how many reader laughs that might mean and tried to do the math. I guessed maybe 10 laughs a book, but then realized you have to consider that some of the copies were gifts and maybe were never opened. But others may have been read hundreds of times—so possibly there was an average of 100 laughs a book? Well, that’s 200 million laughs, and to me, that’s a very fun stat!
My Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak. Dial, $9.99 paper Nov. ISBN 978-0-5931-1101-7