Funny Books Rule! Why Kids Love Them

by Ann Jacobus on February 7, 2012

Post image for Funny Books Rule! Why Kids Love Them

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.

And kids love it!

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.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Erzsi Deak February 8, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Terrific article, Ann! My favorite part 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.'” Brilliant!

Thanks for the good and thoughtful read.

Susan February 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm

What a wonderful article by Ann Jacobus. She really understands humour! I agree: “funny is dead serious.” It’s also probably one of the most difficult genres to write, which is why there are far, far too few genuinely funny books.
Thank you for your articulate analysis of humour, Ann!

Carol Baldwin February 8, 2012 at 5:52 pm

Just finished reading Richard Peck’s “Here Lies the Librarian.” I loved his humor and his voice! Both Peck and Fleishman are great examples of humor in books. I don’t remember Holes as funny–seemed so poignant and dramatic. Thanks for the recommendation on Jack Gantos’ latest book. Will add it to Goodreads now.

Mirka Breen February 8, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Since you mentioned it, I’m a HUGE fan of R. Peck. The Teacher’s Funeral has the perennial Newbery of my heart. But there’s funny-poignant, and gag-funny. All funny is not created equal.
I agree that it is a happy day- to have a funny book get the respect it should.

Cheryl Hardy Phillips February 8, 2012 at 10:12 pm

Can’t wait to read Norvelt – just picked it up from the library today. I still remember Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key and how much I loved the humor mixed with a kid that was hurting. Seemed like his sense of humor is what got him through the hard times.

Barbara Younger February 9, 2012 at 4:59 am

I will reread as I rewrite (working on a funny book). My favorite line is: “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.”

Love the smashing!

Ann Jacobus February 9, 2012 at 8:51 am

Thanks for the comments! I do hope that young reviewer from Amazon doesn’t mind being quoted. He has a bright future ahead of him at Kirkus.
Deciding whether a book is humorous overall is not always straight forward. So many good “serious” books out there are leavened with good humor (BUD, NOT BUDDY comes to mind…). And these top notch funny books have plenty of serious elements, too, especially if we scratch below the surface (JOEY PIGZA). To top it all off, humor can be so subjective.

Frances Lee Hall February 10, 2012 at 10:53 am

Ann, you are so funny!
“Elimination protocol.” I know kids who need that, and adults who need a refresher course.
I agree, I love books that are serious, but leavened with good humor. Loved BUD, NOT BUDDY, and Martine’s HECK SUPERHERO comes to mind. To balance and weave the two, serious-ness & humor, equals brilliance.

Annie and Aunt April 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm

I found your blog through the IBBA Awards site, and am loving it — one of the best things about contests like these is finding kindred blogs. I’ll be following yours, and linking to it. Thanks!

Ann Jacobus April 14, 2012 at 9:29 am

Thanks, Annie and Aunt! Glad we found each other.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: