A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School: A Charming Catalog of Excuses and an Allegory for How Human Imagination Works
A playful parable about the stories we tell to avoid being wrong and the combinatorial nature of human creativity.
By Maria Popova
Psychologists and behavioral economists now know that there is a strong positive correlation between creativity and dishonesty — the more intelligent and imaginative we are, the better we’re able to rationalize our misconduct. And since children’s minds reveal so much about how the human imagination develops, both psychological theory and parental practice confirm that kids come up with the most fanciful excuses for why they did those mischievous things they knew they weren’t supposed to do.
In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School (public library), celebrated children’s book author Davide Cali and French illustrator Benjamin Chaud weave a playful parable of this childhood tendency to come up with excuses so fantastical that they become charming stories in their own right — a crucible of creativity and a sandbox for the young mind to play with the building blocks of storytelling.
One morning, the little boy is late to school and when his teacher inquires about the reason for his tardiness, he proceeds to offer a litany of imaginative excuses. Giant ants ate his breakfast! Evil ninjas ambushed him on the way to the bus stop! A massive ape mistook the school bus for a banana! His uncle’s time machine misfired and sent him back to the dominion of dinosaurs!
There are “scary majorettes,” “an unusually large spiderweb,” an encounter with Bigfoot and Yeti, and a call from the president who demanded the boy’s “champion chess skills” in helping to “save the planet from an alien invasion.”
Underpinning the delightful story, with its acrobatics of the imagination and its disarming illustrations, is a subtle testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity — we create our “own” ideas by combining countless fragments of existing ones, of impressions and influences and bits of information, into novel combinations. Ursula K. Le Guin knew this when she considered where great ideas come from, as did Mark Twain when he contemplated originality in a letter to Helen Keller, asserting that “substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”
The little boy’s tales are a testament to this machinery of ideation — many of them borrow subtle elements or entire plot lines from beloved fairy tales (there is the Little Red Riding Hood, beseeching him to help find her grandmother), pop culture tropes (a Godzilla-like ape seizes the school bus), and classic children’s stories (he grows tiny, then huge, à la Alice in Wonderland).
When the little boy is finished relaying his imaginative series of unfortunate events and his teacher inquires whether those fanciful misadventures were the reason for his tardiness, we get to the comically unremarkable truth — for truth, after all, is always unremarkable, and that is what makes it true.
In the final page, as the teacher perches over the boy in skeptical disapprobation of his excuses and their validity, a friendly dinosaur from the faulty avuncular time machine pokes its head through the classroom window — a gentle and generous gesture which seems to assure the young reader that the child’s experience is always real and valid, even if grownups don’t believe it is true.
One can’t help but think of Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as “that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” — what we believe, after all, is the only reality we’ll ever know, and who can agree on this fluctuating fiction we call Truth anyway?
Illustrations courtesy of Chronicle; book photographs my own
Published March 5, 2015