Mr. Messy was a mass of purple squiggles and scrawl. Poor Mr. Bump was a bandage-wrapped disaster area. Mr. Funny was a lime-green joker, wearing a top hat with a flower sprouting from it. Mr. Strong was a smiling, sure-footed red square. Little Miss Helpful looked ready to be just that. Mr. Tickle was an orange ball of naughty, with wriggly arms ready to torment.
Roger Hargreaves’ Mr. Men books were childhood favorites, cornerstones: I loved reading and receiving them. And I think my less-innocent adult mind might come to think the same way about humorist Dan Zevin’s excellent series of parodic picture books, featuring such characters as Mr Selfie, Little Miss Overshare, Mr. Humblebrag, and Little Miss Basic, published this week.
The books have black covers, and “a parody” written on their covers, so there is no chance of confusion with their innocence-steeped forebears.
Instead, they are cleverly drawn (by Dylan Klymenko) character types very much of today—and characters we would mock, deride, or leave the room and cross the street to avoid.
Zevin writes in the same childish, sing-songy way as Hargreaves did about the regular Mr. Men, and like those characters Zevin’s barrel through a day in their singularly defined worlds, humblebragging, oversharing, taking their own picture, and being relentlessly middle-of-the-road.
The big difference is all their failures, personality faults and weaknesses are on parade, and they learn not a thing about a better way to behave.
Mr. Selfie is armed with a selfie stick, and ceaselessly takes pictures of himself. After he gets fired, the first thing he does is go to Afghanistan to take “an action-packed shot behind enemy lines,” before some downhill runs on the Matterhorn, and getting almost gored to death trying to take the perfect selfie with a man-eating wildebeest.
Little Miss Overshare—the girlfriend of Mr. Tactless—cannot stop herself from regaling everyone with news about her life, her thoughts, what made her who she is, and her problems.
Everything comes out in a babbling stream, like telling her co-workers she has to drink cranberry juice all week because she has a urinary tract infection (“And then she showed them her urine sample”).
Mr. Humblebrag notes that he is humbled by his movie deal, his TED talk, his Ironman race, “and his transformational trip to the African village where he saw the endangered turtles and met the malnourished orphans.” (Do watch Dick Cavett reading Mr. Humblebrag.)
As for Little Miss Basic, she loves her pumpkin spice lattés, and her Uggs, which she wears for SoulCycle and pilates, alongside a black North Face jacket, black Lululemon yoga pants, and sunglasses. How will she deal with rejection from her bae, Mr. Douchebag, and a troubling encounter with a homeless person?
“I was a fan of the books as a kid,” Zevin, 51, tells me. “I had a younger brother, Richard, who had them all, and, as a parent, I read them to my own kids (Leo, 12, and Josie, 9) when they were younger. I thought they were so great: they taught kids how to behave properly.”
He laughs. “And as a humorist, I thought they would make great parodies for adults.”
He recently came across the original books at his parents’ Long Island home, recalling that he liked Mr. Funny, and I related to Mr. Scatterbrain, a pre-ADHD character. I related to Mr. Funny trying to be the clown, and getting himself into trouble.”
In his books, “which are clearly aimed at adults, not children” Zevin emphasizes, “the character never changes, nobody learns any lessons—in fact they are rewarded for their own bad behavior. These types of people are running rampant, blissfully ignorant.
“I’d been writing things on scraps of paper for years: the selfie guy is based on all those people snapping selfies, even in a crowded park.”
When Zevin won the Thurber Prize for American Humor for his book, Dan Gets a Minivan: Life at the Intersection of Dude and Dad, in 2013 he posted a message about it on social media, and a friend responded: “Good one, Mr Humblebrag.” Zevin says, “If there’s one character, who I am like, it might be him. I feel #blessed and #honored that my parodies are being seen as so funny.”
He won’t name names, but it would have been impossible to write the books, he says, without the inspiration provided by those he knows and loves.
“We have a babysitter in her early 20s,” he says, “and I had been noticing all these young women in Starbucks in Uggs, black yoga pants, black North Face jackets, sunglasses. ‘Oh, you’re talking about Basics,’ she said, which to me seem like the new incarnation of Cher in Clueless, or the ‘Valley Girl.’”
Zevin also consulted the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and Psychology Today looking into narcissistic personality disorders, “and there was definitely a moment where I thought, ‘I’m kind of like that. I’m really fucked up.’”
In the spring a new quartet of characters “will get even darker,” Zevin says: Little Miss Hot Mess, Mr. Emotionally Unavailable, Little Miss Passive Aggressive, and Mr. Baller (“he thinks he’s a ladies’ man, but he’s a complete goof”).
Zevin lives in Larchmont, Westchester, and is married to Megan Tingley, Executive Vice President and Publisher of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
They moved there from Brooklyn six years ago. “I thought it would be the open space I would love the most,” he says, “but it’s the fact I have a driveway. We lived in Brooklyn for eight years, seven-and-a-half-of-them which felt we were looking for a parking space in Boerum Hill.”
As well work which has appeared in publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, Zevin teaches a ‘writing with wit’ course at Sarah Lawrence College, as part of a graduate MFA creative writing course.
He tells his students that “the truth will make you funny. It sounded crazy to me that there was a course offered in humor writing. I tell my students that they are mistaken if they think the course can teach them how to be funny, but if they have a sense of humor it will teach them how to use that in their writing.”
His students read the work of authors including David Sedaris, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, and Merrill Markoe.
Does Zevin himself find his humor easy to turn on and off? “I find that a second, third, fourth cup of coffee does it for me. You can’t use regular coffee beans, but espresso beans.”
Such is the fuel helping to creating these sharp and clever parodies, which are his new obsession, Zevin says. Or as he puts it, with a wry laugh, “I’m now Mr. Dan.”
All the books are published by Three Rivers Press