Published in 1992, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales won the New York Time’s “Best Illustrated Book” award and was named a Caldecott Honor Book. The illustrated book follows Jack as he attempts to piece together the book. Frequently, the book breaks the fourth wall, as Jack and some of the characters are directly aware that they exist in an illustrated book that is currently being read. Most importantly, the book is a parody of popular fairy tales.
For example, the first story is “Chicken Licken.” From the beginning, the story seems no different than the traditional tale. Chicken Licken runs around town telling everyone that “The sky is falling!” Opposite of the first page, Chicken Licken is drawn large and green with far apart eyes, glasses, and a mouth open in clear panic. A tile with the number “12” bounces off his head. However, “the sky wasn’t falling. The Table of Contents was. It fell and squashed everybody” (Scieszka and Smith). Over two pages, we can see parts of Chicken Licken, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosy, Cocky Locky, and Foxy Loxy peeking out from underneath the crumpled table of contents, a cloud of dust surrounding them.
Throughout the book, The Little Red Hen appears abruptly, complaining about the disappearance of the other characters who were supposed to help her. Rather than getting any work done, she gets eaten by the Giant that Jack faces off against. Her words often appear in large red font, abrasive in comparison to Jack’s small black font. Jack has just put Giant to sleep when Little Red Hen appears; her large red font wakes Giant. Excited by the bread she is complaining about, he sits up, wide eyed. On the next page, Giant holds a sandwich with feathers sticking out. Little Red Hen’s legs poke out one side of his mouth while he cleans his teeth with a feather. Jack smiles as he runs away on the facing page. The Little Red Hen repeatedly disrupts Jack’s ability to put together a cohesive book; by putting her end on the page facing “The End,” there is a certain humor to her death.
As Mcgillis points out, “children’s humor depends largely on the body. Not entirely, but largely. Slapstick, caricature, parody, the grotesque, ridicule, and the improbable in human predicaments concern the body, and so too does nonsense” (McGillis 258). He goes on to mention the importance of names and size in relation to that humor. Regardless of what aspect of the body, there seems to be a subversive act to the humor. With The Stinky Cheese Man, fairy tales are parodied, where classic elements are subverted, critiquing the moral message of the original tale. There is nothing to gain from the individual stories. “Chicken Little” is often a moral tale of courage (or if the fox ends up eating Chicken Little, it is a tale about not believing everything you are told). That moral is removed when the Table of Contents crushes everyone. Similarly, “Little Red Riding Shorts” ends with Little Red walking away with the wolf annoyed that Jack ruined their story by giving it all away in advance. There is no moral to gain from walking in the woods alone.
While The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales actively works against moral lessons, the book does have a didactic element. Through Jack’s constant missteps, the reader learns about the elements of book: narrator, characters, title page, table of contents, etc. An element that is kept in the play version, but now it’s the elements of the play that are being interrupted and misplaced. (Also, I think the play is really interesting since it’s children’s bodies that are performing the stories from the book, but we can talk about that more in class).
If you’re not familiar with the book, check out this website.