Q: What do you get when you cross a tennis ball with some prairie dogs? A: An award-winning picture book recipe. (Obviously!)

I don’t know about you, but I see a regular, old, green tennis ball in that dog’s mouth. Author/Illustrator Janet Stevens, on the other hand, saw a mysterious green, fuzzy object from the POV of a prairie dog. And when this mysterious object rolled down a prairie dog tunnel, it caused mayhem amongst prairie dogs far and wide. As much as I consider myself a “creative”, I can say with great confidence that I never would have made the leap from a tennis ball to the prairie dog premise. This is yet another brilliant example of how so many talented picture book authors take everyday, ordinary objects and reinvent them in amazingly creative ways. And it’s no surprise that kiddos find stories like this highly engaging. That I can vouch for!

Published in 2005, by Harcourt, Inc. The Great Fuzz Frenzy (which I shall refer to as TGFF) written and illustrated by Janet Stevens (co-authored by her sister Susan Stevens Crummel) is at the top of my “oldie-but-timeless-goodies” list for classroom read-alouds. TGFF is a character-driven story, and Stevens puts the hilarious prairie dogs right up front in the driver’s seat. TGFF is rich with all of the finest ingredients necessary to whip up a delectable picture book that’s refreshing to read aloud, and most importantly, yummy to listen to. Let’s digest Janet Stevens’ recipe for success.

Step 1: Take 32 pages of perfectly seasoned illustrations and sprinkle in a pinch of onomatopoeia.

I mean, seriously, you can’t have a tennis ball falling down a long tunnel without some onomatopoeia! And the illustration for this part of the story has a six-page spread! Readers have to turn the book sideways and unfold the pages vertically to follow the tennis ball down the long tunnel. This adds a light, flaky, and playful quality to the main dish. Having read this book many times over the years, there’s always at least a couple of kids who exclaim, “WHOA!” when I reveal these pages. 

Step 2: Pepper with “word play”.

Stevens (a master at wordplay!) uses equal parts alliteration and rhyme to give the story a buttery rhythm and amp up the salty silliness. This is a scrumptious page to read! Give it a taste!

Step 3: Saute sweet and savory characters and layer with delicious dialogue.

The two main ingredients are Big Bark (the bossy pants who barks insults) and Pipsqueak (unavailable for the photo), the bite-sized voice of reason and ultimately the restorer of order amongst the dogs. The rest of the prairie dogs don’t have specific names and really don’t need them because Stevens uses dialogue to give them a mix of sweet, nutty, gooey, dry, spicy, and pickled personalities.

Step 4: Fold in a heaping tablespoon of fresh kid humor.

After the prairie dogs determined that the fuzzy “thing” wasn’t a danger to them, they each scrambled to get a piece of the fuzz and all found different uses for it. Much to the dismay of Big Bark. (A bottle cap for a hat! Come on, that’s pretty funny!)

Knowing nothing about the composition of tennis balls, the prairie dogs had themselves a “fuzz frenzy” – picking, pruning, pulling, and pinching, until, you guessed it, “That big round thing was fuzzless. Naked as a plucked chicken.” 

Here’s a chance to catch your breath if you’re reading this aloud because the kids will need a second to cleanse their palates (aka: compose themselves) after hearing an adult say the word “naked.” Happens every single time, trust me. 

I recently read TGFF to a class of second graders. One of them drew this adorable picture of the fuzzless, naked tennis ball. You can see that all of its fuzz (represented by squiggly lines) is in the prairie dog tunnels.

As much as I’d love to talk more in-depth about author Janet Stevens, that would require its own post. Stevens has enjoyed a long, successful career whipping up masterpieces and has published upward of fifty children’s books. Many of these have won medals and honors including Time Magazine Best Books of the Year, ALA Notable books, Children’s Choice awards, Wanda Gag Book Best Read Aloud Award, New York Times Best Seller list, and the Caldecott Honor for Tops and Bottoms. However, the awards she’s proudest of are her state book awards (she’s won over 30 of them!) because those awards are voted on by children. It makes sense that Stevens feels that way; after all, kids have the finest taste in books.

In lieu of her lengthy and impressive biography, I’ll leave you with her sentiments:

“When children read and love my books I feel as if I have done my job. My greatest compliment is, read it again!”

Janet Stevens speaking about her most coveted awards

To read more about Chef Stevens and her award-winning recipes, visit her website at: https://janetstevens.com/

Children’s writers and illustrators, it’s time to get cooking! Kids have insatiable appetites when it comes to great stories. Bon Appetit!


  1. Looks like a fun book! As soon as I read the third sentence of your post, I wondered if Janet was inspired by “The Gods Must Be Crazy” movie. Either way, such a great concept for a picture book. I can see why your students love hearing you read it!

    Liked by 1 person

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