Playing with words
GREENWICH — At just 3 years old, Henley Belle Johnson is a master of suspense.
She took her time assembling her audience — plush toys of two pink tigers, a sheep and a dog — then put on and took off a red plastic fireman’s hat before delivering her punchline.
“What does the cow put in her hot chocolate?” Elle Muliarchyk Johnson asked.
“Ca-cow,” Henley said. (Insert rimshot here.)
The mother-and-daughter duo wrote and self-published a joke book for kids called “What Underwear Does a Zebra Wear?” It’s a compilation of animal puns Henley has made since she was 2. Now, Amazon lists the book, published in July, as the No.1 new release in Children’s Joke and Riddle Books and the Johnsons plan on donating copies to charities and hospitals.
“Some of her jokes are for adults, they’re so clever and so punny,” her mother said. “It’s an interesting case, for people who worry about language development.”
At one-and-a-half, Henley hadn’t even said “Mama” or “Dada,” but within a week of seeing a speech therapist, she went from one to 100 words.
The Johnsons talk to Henley as their equal, which contributes to the girl’s imaginative word play, her mother said.
Henley, meanwhile, putters around the backyard. She took healthy snacks from a plastic bin and laid out a spread, then sat in the big container. She got out and started sandwiching pretzels and popcorn together. She introduced stuffed animals to the party and eventually sat down to scribble in chalk.
The youngster’s name appears on the front cover as the author, but Johnson said she tries to protect her daughter from the business and the fame of writing a book to preserve the fun they had.
About eight months ago, Johnson drew the joke that would become the book’s title, a zebra wearing a bra. Every time Henley made a pun, Johnson, her husband, Grant, and even the babysitter brainstormed scenarios. The mother gave her drawings to Anna Dalbuz, a professional illustrator from Ukraine she found online to put together the book.
Johnson once told the zebra joke at the Phoenix Zoo while the family stood in a crowd in front of a cage, trying to catch a glimpse of a zebra. The punchline energized the hot and tired crowd, she said.
“It’s amazing to see the power of humor,” Johnson said. “Motherhood is a new experience for me to connect with people on a new level,” whether with jokes, art or a puppet show with animals found in the book.
Word play poses a challenge to English-language learners, but the book nods to other languages and backgrounds.
The gardeners, who speak Spanish, appreciated Henley’s joke about what thirsty blades of grass say when the gardener waters them: “Grass-ias.” The grocery delivery man, an Egyptian, chuckled at the candy archaeologists found in the Pyramids: “Pyra-mints.”
Henley connected “grass” with “gracias” while she still used sign language, Johnson said.
Illustrated joke books for kids are rare, she said. The competition, called just “Jokes for Kids,” has more than 100 jokes, the print is small and the book has no illustrations, she said.
“A 5-year-old or 6-year-old would not be reading tiny print,” Johnson said. “When you tell a joke, half won’t understand.”
The illustrations, funny in themselves, help the children understand, she said.
Johnson never thought “What Underwear Does a Zebra Wear?” would beat “Jokes for Kids” on Amazon. But it has risen to the top of its category and has only four- and five-star reviews.
Speech and language therapist Tsgoyna Tanzman gave the book five stars on Amazon. She is always looking for ways to help children with special needs understand the metaphors of humor.
“What makes this book especially helpful are the illustrations that allow explanation of the double meanings and the subtleties in sound play and word similarity that make humor so fun,” she wrote. “Getting kids to tell jokes to others boosts their confidence, self-esteem and ability to interact with others.”
Grant Johnson has given copies of his daughter’s book to co-workers.
“Everybody’s proud of their daughter, but it’s special to give people something their daughter made,” he said.
He is also proud of his wife. She is a former model who got her start as a fashion photographer when she transformed changing rooms in high-end clothing stores into studios, wearing elegant dresses and using mirrors to take pictures. (She was even kicked out of stores and arrested.)
Since then, Johnson has produced content for Estee Lauder, Beyonce, Lady Gaga and MAC, but she said she always strives to make statements in her work.
She has translated her artistic background to this book, her husband said.
“It’s inspiring to see how Elle has reinvented herself,” he said.
The Johnsons marked 300 copies for hospitals and charities, including St. Jude Hospital, from the 500 books in the first printing. The couple aims for every patient to leave St. Jude with a copy.
“It’s our way to spread love to the world,” Elle Johnson said.
Editor’s note: This Saturday, families can attend a book launch party from 4 to 6 p.m. at Mill River Park in Stamford. There will be a puppet show, a Kona Ice truck and free carousel rides.