I was so pleased that Jack Gantos’s DEAD END IN NORVELT won the Newbery medal this year. Because it’s funny! Humor doesn’t always get the respect and prizes it deserves. Newberys have gone to humorous books only a couple of times in the last fifty years, mainly since 1999*. We tend to assume that if something’s funny, it’s not serious, and therefore not to be taken… as seriously.
Au contraire. Funny is dead serious. It’s based on the truth of pain, suffering and chaos.
Humor rules. If you can get a kid to laugh out loud at a book, they’re hooked. Probably for life.
Humor is subjective. (Disclaimer: breaking humor apart to see how it ticks may irrevocably bust it.) Funny for third-grade boys is really an animal unto itself—a strange, gross creature like a baboon crossed with a squid. But you can learn to love it. With three boys, there’s been so much potty humor in our house for so long, I can laugh over flying toilets and Uranus with the best ‘em.
Humor is also subversive and children respond to this.
It turns things on their head, in small and large ways—from the simplest Sandra Boynton puns (we still wish family members “Hippo Birdy Two Ewes”) and Amelia Bedelia’s literalness and resulting snafus, to super diaper babies and violent Lunch Ladies. Humor takes all the dos and don’ts kids are trying to get a handle on, from linguistic rules to hygiene and elimination protocol, and smashes them. It upends and overthrows the bossy authorities and institutions that run kids’ lives. CLICK CLACK MOO: COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin & Betsy Lewin? Those uppity cows are subversive defined. Barbara Park’s JUNIE B. JONES exasperates most of the adults around her. NO, DAVID! by David Shannon is a boy breaking rules, straight up. Kids are generally powerless and anything that switches this uneven, unjust balance, even for a moment, is gratifying and reassuring.
If adults are uncomfortable with it, so much the better! I know adults who are upset by just how funny CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS is. But one young reader raved on Amazon about Dav Pilkey’s latest : “Do not listen to the bad reviews. This book is really good. I read it twice in one day. I want Dav to be way grosser and funnier in his next book. My favorite part was when the robot cat ate all the toilets in town.”
I think all Pilkey’s reviews, good and bad, have the word toilet in them.
Humor is pain plus time. ReaderKidZ librarian Kristen Remenar reported reading the opening line from THE TEACHER’S FUNERAL by Richard Peck to a crowd of fifth graders (“If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.”) She said, “There was a collective intake of breath, a glancing around to make sure the teachers were smiling, and then the waves of laughter.” Of course they looked around! The kids were making sure they wouldn’t get multiple detentions before they cracked up. Come on, that’s a dark line. Dying is about as painful as you can get.
Absurdity and things spinning out of control are also a big part of the darkness underlying children’s (in this case, especially boys’) sense of humor. Mo Willems, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith understand this well. NAKED MOLE RAT GETS DRESSED? Absurd! THE STINKY CHEESE MAN AND OTHER FAIRLY STUPID TALES? Totally outta control! The little red hen leaves her story. All of fiction falls apart therein.
The truth is, kids know on some deep level just how close the world IS to total chaos. Laughing at it lessens the terrible burden of that.
Humor is grace. Remember that when your kids are guffawing over WALTER THE FARTING DOG.
*Anyone who has read those early winners, correct me if I’m wrong. I think winning books where humor is predominant are HOLES by Louis Sachar in 1999 and A YEAR DOWN YONDER by Richard Peck in 2001. The other book in the last thirty years one could argue was more funny than solemn is THE WHIPPING BOY, by Sid Fleishman. Before Sid, kidlit took itself pretty seriously.