Barrel of Laughs: A Vale of Tears, written and illustrated by Jules Feiffer 180pp RL4
I love A Barrel of Laughs: A Vale of Tears by Jules Feiffer. If Monty Python's Flying Circus had written a young adult book, this very well might be it. (Actually, Eric Idle wrote a very funny retelling, and now out of print, in novel form, of Edward Lear's poem "The Owl and the Pussycat.") Jules Feiffer has a spectacular sense of humor and a very nice way of letting the reader in on the joke. If you haven't already read it, don't miss my favorite of Feiffer's many excellent picture books, Bark, George!
Roger, the son of the kindly King Watchamacallit, has a gift that is also a curse. He is a carrier of joy and he spreads it before him wherever he goes, his remarkably high spirits casting a spell over anyone or anything who comes within a half mile of him. Because of this, very little gets done in the kingdom and it is J. Wellington Wizard who determines that Roger must go on a quest. Prince Roger journeys through the Forever Forest, across several other well named geographical challenges and onto the Mountain of Malice. Each locale has a clever challenge that Roger must meet to continue on his quest as well as a host of unique characters. As he struggles to understand himself and the world around him, all that Roger sees and everyone he meets has an impact on him until and changes him in some way until he emerges from his quest a more thoughtful person. He finds friendship, marries and has a child. By the end of the story, amidst his happy ending, Roger decides that "in his lifetime there might be a dozen, a hundred more quests, quests of all kinds waiting out there to be found. But where else would he have found this woman? Or this child? Or these friends?"
In my polemic on books that teach life lessons, I said that I disliked books that blatantly taught lessons to children. I prefer books that artfully and creatively weave certain truths of existence - life is difficult, but we learn how to be better people when we go through difficult experiences, etc. - into an artful story that makes you feel and think things you hadn't before. While this book doesn't have the black and white good and evil embodied in a person or animal of a traditional fairy tale, it does have dark and dangerous places that can put a person in peril. And, as Bruno Bettelheim points out in his treatise on the importance of fairy tales, there is a hero who has to "go out into the world all by [himself] and who, although originally ignorant of the ultimate things, finds secure places in the world by following [his] right way with deep inner confidence." This hero allows the listeners/readers an example of a person they might like to be like and gives the tools to make "coherent sense out of the turmoil of [their] inner feelings" and gives them idea on how to put their inner houses in order. Barrel of Laughs: A Vale of Tears is definitely one of those books and not be missed by anyone who enjoys a good fairy tale.
If your child enjoys this book, suggest The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, Doll People, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, Far-Flung Adventures, The Great Good Thing by Roderick Townley, Sisters Grimm Series by Michael Buckley, and Whales on Stilts by M. T. Anderson.