The earliest American humor used exaggeration in its purest form: larger-than-life heroes performing superhuman feats. Remember Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry? The American tall tale is still a favored form of humor for children. Anne Isaac’s Swamp Angel moves this classic genre into the 1990s with her female superheroine. Not only does Swamp Angel fend off Thundering Tarnation, the marauding bear, she has to prove herself to taunting backwoodsmen who’d have her stay at home, quilting.
Transcendental toasters, madcap Martians, and articulate animals are all examples of truth stretching. My favorite mouthy mammal is the mutt, Martha, in Susan Meddaugh’s Martha Speaks. After Martha dog eats a bowl of alphabet soup, she becomes quite the loquacious pooch. “You people are so bossy. COME! SIT! STAY! You never say please.”
Journey beyond the bounds of possibility to create exaggerated humor. How about a plucky petunia? A daring doormat? Even preschool children can differentiate between the real and unreal as they gleefully embrace the fun in make-believe.
With wordplay, language is key to the rhythm, sound, and rhyme that carries your story forward. Readers become reciters. Jack Prelutsky, Shel Silverstein, and Joyce Armor are wizards of wordplay in their witty poetry. Nancy Shaw’s “Sheep” books are shear joy (yes, pun intended).
If you’re not a poet and you know it, try your hand at literal translation. Amelia Bedelia books by Peggy Parish teach you how. Amelia Bedelia, the indomitable maid, takes every order, every conversation, every suggestion literally, and sets herself up for catastrophe. Children love trying to predict the consequences of Amelia’s misunderstandings.
Eugene Trivizas chose role reversal to retell a classic fairy tale in his The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. To make the most effective use of role reversal, choose familiar characters acting out of character. Turn everyday events topsy-turvy. Harry Allard uses children’s perceptions about substitute teachers (whether true or not) when he changes meek, mild Miss Nelson into bleak, vile Viola Swamp. You may choose to switch family members, as Mary Rodgers did with her mother/daughter exchange in Freaky Friday, or people and their pets, aliens with automobiles, princes and paupers. Stay away from twins, though. It’s been done and done and done.
Nonsense includes incongruity and absurdity, ridiculous premises, and illogical series of events. What makes a nonsense book funny is its weirdness. Imogene’s Antlers, by David Small, is the story of a young girl, Imogene, who wakes up one day to find she’s grown antlers. This is a problem. Imogene has trouble getting dressed; she can’t fit through narrow doorways; her antlers get caught in the chandelier. Even worse, her mother keeps fainting at the sight of her. Though children recognize the absurdity of Imogene’s situation, they also see how well she copes with her sudden disability. This book speaks to children’s physical differences, which is a fundamental value of humor.
Literary humor helps children grow. It offers distancing from pain, from change and insecurity, from cruelty, disaster and loss. Children are not always sophisticated or mature enough emotionally to laugh at themselves. Humorous books with subtle serious themes offer children ways to deal positively with life’s inequities. They offer a magic mirror, through which children’s problems–and their solutions–can be reflected back.
Farce and horseplay have been part of the American humor scene since vaudeville–maybe before. Who knows what Neanderthals did for fun? Physical humor appeals to the child in all of us. Hectic, frenetic chases and bumbling, stumbling characters cause chaos in the pages of children’s books. Your plot will immediately pick up pace if you include a frantic fiasco or two. Check out Betsy Byars’ Golly Sisters. May-May and Rose’s calamitous capers are rip-roaring fun. Avi used slapstick masterfully in his book Romeo and Juliet Together (And Alive) At Last! His high schoolers’ rendition of Shakespeare’s masterpiece would make The Bard weep (with tears of laughter).
You can achieve humor by poking fun at human vices, human foibles, or the general social order, which rarely makes sense to children, so they love to see it pulverized on paper. My favorite satirical series is “The Stupids,” by Harry Allard. I swear these people lived next door to me when I was growing up. James Marshall’s illustrations add hilarity to the humor.
To write effective satire for children, you must recognize the ridiculous in youngsters’ lives. Make fun of uppity people’s pretensions, lampoon restrictions, and spoof the silly societal mores children are expected to embrace. Create characters who teeter on the edge, who challenge the status quo–and thrive. Read Sid Fleischman’s The Whipping Boy for a lesson in writing satire.
Family and school stories, growing up and coming-of-age novels make up the bulk of children’s humorous fiction, Adolescence just seems to lend itself to humor. Laughter helps older children deal with life’s larger dilemmas: death, divorce, disability, senility, loss, and unwelcome change. Reading about characters who successfully and humorously overcome obstacles provides children with painless lessons on how to handle their own problems.
For my book B.J.’s Billion-Dollar Bet, I started with a troublesome topic–betting. Frequently, I overhear conversations between kids who are placing bets: “Oh, sure. I bet you,” or “Wanna bet? Come on, let’s bet on it.” And they bet away valuable items–clothing, sports card collections, lunch money. To show the consequences of betting, I created B.J. Byner, a compulsive gambler who bets and loses all of his possessions, then begins to bet away his family’s belongings. When B.J. loses his mother’s lottery ticket in a wager, then finds out the ticket is a fifty-million-dollar winner, he has to get that ticket back!
I hope young readers will see that the risks of gambling are considerable; the losses more than they may be willing or able to pay. Betting can result in loss of friendship, family conflict, and, as with any addiction, loss of control and self-respect. If I hadn’t chosen a humorous premise for this book, it would have been too preachy.
Middle-grade and young adult novels include more urbane, cerebral humor. These young people are developing their own individual views of the world, and social relationships take on a major role.
For my middle-grade novel, How Do You Spell Geek?, I began with a funny, offbeat character, Lurlene Brueggemeyer, the geek, and built the story around her. The issues are serious ones-judging people by their appearance, shifting alliances between friends, peer pressure, and self-examination, but I gave my main character, Ann, a sarcastic sense of humor and a wry way of watching her world get weird, which seems to lighten the load.
Read the masters of middle-grade humor: Ellen Conford, Barbara Park, Beverly Cleary, Betsy Byars, Daniel Pinkwater, and Jerry Spinelli, among many, many others.
There are humor writers who defy classification; they relate to their audiences through rebellion, radicalism, and general outrageousness. Three young adult authors who fall into this special category are M.E. Kerr, Richard Peck, and Paul Zindel. Their books validate an emerging adult’s individuality, passion, and self-expression.
If you plan to try your hand at humor, steer clear of targeting a specific age group. I’ve received letters from eight-year-olds who are reading my junior high novel, Risky Friends. And I’m sure you know high schoolers who still get a hoot out of Dr. Seuss. Even though sense of humor evolves as we grow older, we never lose appreciation for the books that made us laugh when we were younger.
Humor writing is a spontaneous act. It comes from deep within, from your own wacky way of looking at the world. One word of caution: Humor has power. What we laugh at, we make light of. What we laugh at, we legitimize and condone. Cruelty is never funny. Violence isn’t funny. Torture, torment, neglect, war, hatred, and preying on others’ misfortunes are not subjects for children’s humor. There’s a fine line between sarcasm and cynicism; between light-spirited and mean-spirited. So be aware. If you do write humor for children, observe the limits.
There’s more than one way to connect with children through humor (beyond using “underwear”). In fact, with all the techniques available, and given the fact that children laugh easily, your chances of eliciting gleeful responses are excellent.