Have you heard about the need for “layers” in picture books and ever wondered, what’s up with that? A good Shrek reference, for one thing. (Onions have layers! Ogres have layers!)
I write funny books; or, at least, that’s my intent. But even a humorous story has to have some deeper substance.
If you’re getting rejections that say things like…
“I didn’t emotionally connect with this enough to take it on.”
“While I appreciate the humor, the story felt too one-note.”
…you might need a stronger emotional theme, takeaway, or deeper message within the story, a.k.a., layers.
So, let’s dive in fork-first and look at layers in three different funny picture books about… cake! (Because good cakes have layers, too.)
Book #1: Betty Bunny Loves Chocolate Cake (written by Michael B. Kaplan and illustrated by Stéphane Jorish)
This book is one of my four-year-old’s all-time favorites. On the surface, this is a story about a little bunny who really, really loves chocolate cake. She doesn’t want peas and carrots for dinner—she just wants chocolate cake. She attempts to make chocolate cake out of dirt and water on the playground (spoiler: it doesn’t taste quite the same). She even wants to marry chocolate cake.
Okay, you can see why this book is cute and clever and hilarious, right? But what about the emotional layer? What’s going to tug at readers’ heartstrings?
Betty reminds me a lot of my youngest. She’s strong-willed. She throws temper tantrums. But she does it all in a way that’s so darn cute, you can’t help but stifle a laugh when she’s on a tirade. When Betty wants her cake, she wants it NOW! Betty’s mom suggests that perhaps if she knows a special piece of cake—just for her—has been set aside in the fridge, it will help her to be patient. Ah! There’s the emotional layer. It’s hard for Betty to be patient, just like it’s hard for most children, and Betty reacts to this struggle in some particularly hilarious and totally kid-like ways.
Here’s the winning recipe for this lovely, layered picture book:
-A heaping cup of cake loving
-A sprinkle of spunky personality
-A pinch of learning about patience
Voila! A truly scrumptious story.
Book #2: I Love Cake! (written by Tammi Sauer and illustrated by Angie Rozelaar)
On the surface, this is a story about three woodland friends: Rabbit, Porcupine, and Moose. It’s Rabbit’s birthday, and she’s throwing herself a party with the typical accoutrements: presents, games, and of course—cake! So relatable, right? What kid doesn’t love a good birthday party with their best friends?!
The laughs come largely from Moose. He’s a wacky guy, illustrated through his dry sense of humor and love of patterned sweaters. Early on, when the animals are introducing themselves to the reader, Moose declares: “I am Frog. Just kidding! I am Moose.” This commentary always gets my kids giggling.
So there’s the surface layer, but let’s go deeper. Moose is also a little impulsive (you know, like a lot of little kids) and he eats all the cake before his friends can enjoy a piece. Naturally, his pals are perturbed. As Moose struggles to make it up to his friends, this becomes a deeper story about making mistakes, righting your wrongs, and ultimately, forgiveness.
Here’s the recipe:
-A cup of cute characters
-A tablespoon of trouble
-Heaping helpings of friendship & forgiveness
The result? A story that’s as sweet as a bowl of buttercream frosting.
Book #3: Marigold Bakes a Cake (written and illustrated by Mike Malbrough)
On the surface: Marigold is a cat who likes things just so. He’s organized. Meticulous. And on Mondays, he bakes cakes—alone. You can imagine, then, his utter irritation when a bunch of uninvited birds show up in his kitchen. To me, there’s something hilarious about a persnickety kitty who just wants to bake his gosh-darn cake uninterrupted because IT’S MONDAY, FOR GOODNESS SAKE!
Going deeper: Malbrough shows Marigold’s rising emotions through fabulous word choices. After the first interruption, he becomes a tad flustered. After the second, he’s frazzled (and his tail goes all poofy). When he’s interrupted a third time, he’s downright frenzied, and much like Betty Bunny, he throws a tantrum.
Raise your hand if you were a perfectionist kid who totally lost your marbles when your plans went awry. (Me!) The little Laura of the late ’80s would have identified with Marigold so very much, and if I were an agent or editor, I would’ve scooped up this story lickety-split because I can connect with poor Marigold and his perfectly-ruined plans.
-A pinch of perfectionist personality
-Fold in one frazzled kitty
-Clarify with a calm-down strategy
(Yeah, I know. Fancy baking terms. Ooh la la!)
I hope these examples have helped illustrate how even ultra-funny books can resonate with readers on a deeper level, and that’s just what agents and editors mean when they’re asking for stories with layers. Like a nice raspberry filling, a bit of heart might be just what you need to round out the flavor of your story and cook up a winning picture book!