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Make 'Em Laugh: Using Humor

by Laura Backes, Publisher, Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers

1744 was a good year for children’s literature. John Newbery produced A Little Pretty Pocket-Book, the first book written exclusively for children. It was also about this time that Mother Goose arrived on the scene with her now famous nursery rhymes.

But these first examples of writing for children were more didactic than entertaining. They were based on adults’ assumptions of what childhood should be like, and were meant educate or impart a moral lesson. Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865, is often cited as the first example of nonsense in a children’s book (though it contains plenty of morals), and Mark Twain’s subtly humorous take on the nature of mankind caused his books to be banned in schools for many years. Fortunately, editors, parents and teachers have come to realize the importance of humor in children’s literature (thanks largely to Dr. Seuss), and children’s books in the last 45 years have reflected this change. Childhood is now seen as a stage of development in its own right, not just a training ground for adulthood. Books can make children dream, think, and laugh without having to teach them a lesson on every page.

Child development experts generally break humor into four categories: physical humor; humor of situation; humor involving play of language; humor of character. The order of this grouping suggests that the first two categories are less sophisticated than the last two. But all four can be used in children’s books for all ages. The most successful children’s books lead the reader through the steps of the joke. It’s the punch line that’s important; the more subtle and sophisticated the joke, the older the reader.

Physical humor can be anything from slapstick for younger readers (a clumsy duck or nearsighted dog), to a character who dresses outrageously in middle grade novels. Physical humor is used in picture books and early readers more than upper middle grade and young adult novels—the older children appreciate more cerebral humor. Humor of situation can be blatantly obvious, as in Space Dog by Natalie Standiford, a book for 7-10 year olds about a dog from outer space who crashes his spaceship into a suburban boy’s backyard. The book is funny because the situation is so absurd. In books for older children, the humor is more true to life and closer to their own experiences, such as a fourteen-year-old girl running into a boy she has a crush on when she’s at the movies with her parents.

Humor involving play of language transcends every age group. It starts out as rhyming words in children’s poetry (often with nonsense words thrown in), evolves to puns for 7-10 year olds, and develops into allusion for young adults, where the jokes often involve references to popular television shows, songs, or events that occurred earlier in the book. Humor of character is probably the most difficult form of humor for the author to develop. In an article written for Horn Book in 1982, author Beverly Cleary wrote that children “enjoy feeling superior to their younger selves (represented by a character in the book) and are relieved to know they have grown.” Funny characters in books act in ways children aren’t allowed to in real life. The main thing that changes with the age of the book’s audience is the situation in which the character finds himself. In Space Dog, the dog from outer space eats pizza in bed and refuses to associate with other canines. A book for an older child may have a character talking back to a teacher or parent.

How do you know exactly what children will find funny? Author James Thurber said, “Not many adults have the kind of total recall that lets them remember what was funny to them as children.” The best way is to observe children talking among themselves. If you don’t have children of your own, spend some time at park or playground, or ask a teacher if you can observe her class for a day or two. Ask your local librarian which books children check out most often, and read them yourself. When in doubt, make the humor in your story more complex rather than simple. Children’s grasp of humor develops faster than most adults realize, and there’s nothing more insulting to a twelve-year-old than to litter your text with knock-knock jokes.


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