A Touch of Salt: Not-So-Bland Issues in Funny Books


As I write The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters and The Infamous Ratsos series, I try to make each story as funny and surprising and engaging as possible. But I have another, less overt goal in mind: I’m hoping to start a conversation about gender roles.

I always try to present the unexpected in my writing. A greedy fish who eats his friends, and eventually falls prey to an even bigger, toothier bully. A boy who’s so obsessed with cars, he turns into one. A parent with terrible table manners, who learns a thing or two from his children. When it came to creating the Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, I imagined two protagonists who were not the usual intrepid, precocious kids, but were instead boring, feckless homebodies.

Jaundice and Kale
Image copyright Jen Hill.

And when I had to decide just what unintentional adventure Jaundice and Kale would face in that first story, my mind immediately went to pirates. But pirates had (and have) been done to death. What would be an unexpected way to present them? That’s when my feminist spirit took over, as it so often does. Of course, they would have to be female pirates — a crew of truly nasty women who, as it turns out, are even more ruthless than their male counterparts.

Jolly Regina crew
Image copyright Jen Hill.

As I developed that first Bland Sisters book into a series, I decided that the subsequent stories would continue to subvert adventure tropes and traditional gender roles. In THE UNCANNY EXPRESS, Jaundice and Kale encounter Magique, a female magician who strives for greatness, despite being raised to believe that women aren’t suited for magic. I’ve already finished the third and final (??) story, and while I don’t want to give anything away, I will say the sky’s the limit — or is it? — for the Bland Sisters and the formidable heroine they encounter.

Shortly after I wrote THE JOLLY REGINA, I created THE INFAMOUS RATSOS. Again, I wanted to do something unexpected, so I decided to write about two boys who think they need to be tough all the time, but who are actually kind and helpful and generous at heart (inspired by my own grandfather and his brother and their childhood shenanigans). In the subsequent stories in the series, I’m including other characteristics of toxic masculinity: the compulsion to mask one’s fears, to deny emotion, affection, and personal connection, to refuse help. Now that I have a son, I’m more aware of the constraints society places on both genders (and the strict views of gender we employ in general), and I hope to do all I can to upend those traditions.

Image copyright Matt Myers.

Of course, the challenge — and I do love a challenge — of blending humor with more serious issues is to employ a light enough hand, to give the story an extra layer of interest and meaning without compromising what makes it a fun read. In culinary terms, it’s like adding just the right touch of salt to something sweet, and thereby enriching the overall flavor. It’s my hope that readers will enjoy the Bland Sisters and the Infamous Ratsos (and my other books!) for the entertainments they are, but find themselves savoring them — and ideally, wanting to talk about them — long after they reach the final pages.

IMG_0258-1Kara LaReau was born and raised in Connecticut. She received her Masters in Fine Arts in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts and later worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press. She is the author of picture books such as UGLY FISH, illustrated by Scott Magoon, and NO SLURPING, NO BURPING! A Tale of Table Manners, illustrated by Lorelay Bové; an award-winning chapter book series called The Infamous Ratsos, illustrated by Matt Myers; and a middle-grade trilogy called The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, illustrated by Jen Hill.  Kara lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and son and their cat.

3 thoughts on “A Touch of Salt: Not-So-Bland Issues in Funny Books

  1. Thanks for this post. I love reading how you think about humor combined with big issues. Definitely the narrative voice adds a ton of humor in The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters.


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