B.J. Novak wants children's book to be a 'gateway drug to literature'
B.J. Novak sees his children’s book as a “gateway drug to literature.” The book, quite literally, is what it says it’s going to be: The Book With No Pictures, and, no, it does not cheat on that promise. And while there are no pictures in Novak’s book, there is colorful text, text that the adult (or bigger kid) reading the book has to say—no matter how silly they’ll sound reading it. And they’ll probably sound really silly. (Sample: “I am a monkey who taught myself to read.”)
But while the book is hilarious for kids—just look how well it goes over— Novak also sees The Book With No Pictures as a way for kids to learn early on that books are “allies,” in his words. “The fact that this is a plain, white book that just has text on the cover that contains so much mischief and joy—I want that cover to be an advertisement for all books,” Novak told EW. “I want kids to think, ‘Well, what is in all these other books that might entertain me, that might give me power?'” Novak—whose book of humorous short stories, One More Thing,came out last year—chatted with EW on The Book With No Pictures‘s publication date about its origins of and his hopes for the work.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Have you tested out the book on kids and what has their reaction been?
B.J. Novak: It’s been pretty exciting. The best audiences are when I get to read to whole groups of kids. I read to a couple of schools. It’s really phenomenal. I think kids are very excited to see a grown-up have to say silly things. And there’s a lot of things I think I learned from comedy that I got to put into the book that I haven’t seen in a kids book before. For example, the reaction shot. A lot of the laughs come on the reaction of the parents, saying, “what? I didn’t want to say that.” That is the way I am funny with kids and it’s also written into the book. The small little text is where the laugh often comes.
How did you come up with this idea?
Well, I read books to kids whenever I can. If I am at a house where a friend has some kids or Thanksgiving with my little cousins, my role is always, let me read you a book, because I love books, I like being funny. So I always look for a funny book. Over time it occurred to me at one point when a kid hands me a book, what’s their dream? What’s the dream thing that it would make me say. So I took a step back and I thought, oh, a book that made the grown-ups say things they didn’t want to say would make a kid feel very powerful and would make words seem very powerful, and above all they’d find very funny. So the idea came from there.
When you’re reading to kids, what are some of your favorites?
I like Mo Willems, I like The Monster at the End of This Book, I like Dr. Seuss. Those are my favorites for kids this age. And I love Press Here. I think sharing an interaction is wonderful for young kids.
When One More Thing came out, you talked about performing the pieces at U.C.B. Can you talk about the relationship between writing and performance?
I realized when I would read books to young kids that it really is a performance of the parent, because the kid doesn’t know what the book says. So it’s really about the parent performing it. And what really occurred to me is a kid’s book at this age is really a script, and a kid is handing you a script. It’s a very funny power dynamic because a kid is basically saying here are your lines tonight, I would like you to perform this for me a few times in a row, preferably, make it your own, but stick to the script. I thought, that’s funny that this is a script. What should the script say? What would a kid enjoy handing me? I thought of it that way and then I wrote what would be the funniest script to have to say and adjusted the font and design on the page to sort of seamlessly encourage it to be read in a certain way.
What was the process of designing the book?
I wanted even the youngest kids to be fascinated by these pages. I wanted them to be glossy, I wanted the colors to be bright and I wanted the letters to look as interesting as pictures, especially once kids realize that certain words were making people say certain things. I wanted kids to kind of revel at the magic of that. There were a lot of rounds with a couple different designers to play with every bit of size and typography. That was actually really fun for me because while I’m not an artist and I can’t draw, I do think about text a lot. It was really fun to put all this design effort into words.
How did you design it when you wrote it out yourself?
I typed it up myself on Microsoft Word using fonts and sizes there and then I paper-clipped them into a large Moleskine notebook that I bought from a stationery store and I brought it to kids houses, and the kids were so young they didn’t know this wasn’t a real book. So I practiced myself making words bigger and smaller. So by the time it got to the designer she already had a sense of what I was going for ,and it was really about interpreting that.
Did you test it out on different kids when you were writing it?
I tested it out on a number of kids, and especially I liked watching other parents and adults read to these kids to see how they would read it if it was clear to them, because I wanted this to be a very easy book to read.
Did you get any harsh criticism from kids?
One kid was too young. Ironically, the kid I wrote it for was only 2 years old. He patiently sat there as I read the whole book and then as soon it was over he said, “now let’s read a book with pictures.” So that was my first and most prominent failure. But he’s 2. Once I started testing at 3, 4, 5, 6, that’s when kids got really into it.
Speaking of text, I wanted to ask you about your Instagram, @picturesoftext. Where did that come from?
It’s naturally what I take pictures of. I guess both visually and comedically I’m just drawn to text, that’s who I am. So when I realized that was what I always naturally wanted to post I just called my Instagram that and said let’s just go for it. But that’s been a fun challenge now.
What have you learned from both experiences from One More Thing and this?
I learned what my voice is as a writer and it’s something I want to bring into everything I do.
So what’s next?
I think the next things I do will be back where I started in entertainment, in television and film. I’m really excited now that I know where I am as a writer to get back into things that everyone watches for entertainment. But I always want to keep writing books too.
Do you feel like there’s a relationship between the work for adults and The Book With No Pictures?
I have a real belief that intelligence is for everyone. I think sometimes when people underestimate the intelligence of their audience they end up making something that fails on no one’s terms. I’ve always noticed that the things that I’ve loved as a kid and as a teenager that were the smartest—from Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl to The Simpsons and Seinfeld—were also the most popular things. So I’m very much a believer in that, and I think that in One More Thing I tried to use the most intelligent side of my self and really challenged myself and same with the book for kids. A lot of people think that, “oh, a 4 or 5 year old, why would they ever want to look at a book without pictures?” The opposite is true. When I show kids this cover they grab for it like it’s an iPad. They are like, “What is this? What’s going on here?” I think there’s an aspirational thing when people sense that people treat them as intelligent. I think that type of intelligent comedy is something I’ve been really adamant about trying to do in both fields.
In your future with children’s books, would you ever introduce pictures?
I love pictures, but I’m from team text. I would love to represent team text. If I can come up with more books without pictures that kids love, I would love to be that guy. But it’s not that I think text is better or words are better, it’s just what I know best.
But do you feel like you have a good hold on the connection between text and images because of your work in entertainment?
I think I think I’m always thinking of the visual because I’m used to the two of them interacting, but I also think to me everything is visual and everything is text. When I get a script, how the cover page looks, how the title page looks on the page, where the author’s—I’m finishing a script right now and I wanted to see so many cover pages before I even wrote the cover page. I think most people just skip past it, but aesthetics tell you so much and the aesthetics I’m most interested in involve text. There’s always information in every visual.
What sort of kids do you think could benefit most from books without pictures?
I think young kids. I would love this to be the first book that every kid remembers that they read without pictures. I would love 20 years from now the future Dane Cook or, you know, whoever’s doing college material then, is saying, “Hey, remember when we all read The Book With No Pictures?” That would be my dream, that it becomes touchstone that kids remember as the first book without pictures they read that blew their mind.