Learning to Laugh at Yourself 

From “a list of twenty supplies you need to survive middle school when you don’t have arms.”  

A sense of humor. I’m being very serious here – you’ve got to have one. Seriously. 

 — Aven Green (Dusti Bowling, Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, p. 255) 

 

For centuries philosophers have analyzed humor. What’s it for? Why does it come so naturally (for most)? Is it bad or good for us? Is it constructive? How much is too much? 

Kids – student readers – don’t really care so much about these questions. They just want the books they read to be funny, or for serious books to include funny. 

The ancients (and the Scholastics) were skeptical of humor. They weren’t sure it was virtuous. They worried that it distracted folks from noble pursuits. Readers – and listeners – know better. We want, we need, the sweet with the salty. 

Aristotle wrote that wit was “educated insolence.” He knew that you have to know something about a subject, in order to joke about it. But he worried a lot about the question of too much or too little. (For everything.) He thought the twin poles of humor were boorishness – making fun of other people or things – and buffoonery – making inordinate, goofy fun of oneself. Aristotle knew that both of these are natural instincts, but by themselves they are boring, tiresome, and destructive. He sought the golden mean between these, too, some lesson hidden in the humor that could help the hearer or reader double back and reflect on their own lives and learn something. 

Umberto Eco put an argument about humor at the heart of his famous novel, The Name of the Rose. Brother William of Baskerville debates the venerable Jorge, the veteran librarian at the 14th century monastery where the mystery is set, who fears that laughter is a tool of the devil that makes a mockery of men: “Laughter shakes the body, distorts the features of the face, makes man similar to the monkey.” William counters that laughter can be used to undermine those who are wrong, and indeed become a weapon for the truth. 

That’s all very stimulating, but admittedly, a little highfalutin. I found a much more accessible and constructive answer from the redoubtable librarian, blogger, podcaster, and actual author, Betsy Bird. She edited an anthology of humorous stories and comics by female authors titled Funny Girl. In her introduction, Bird describes humor as her own “superpower” which enabled her to navigate middle school and find her sense of self and confidence. She was able to turn her own foibles (the embarrassing self-consciousness that can dominate or ruin middle school) into jokes – to laugh at herself. She was able to foist her own mishaps back at any antagonists: ‘You think that’s funny?’ As she writes, “It’s hard to be down on yourself when you find yourself funny.” When something bad happens, she challenges herself, self-reflexively, “to decide that it’s funny, and own it.”  

I think Betsy Bird has located Aristotle’s golden mean. She may use her own humor as a weapon against anyone who challenged her in middle school. But she doesn’t make a fool of herself. She makes a superhero out of herself through her sense of humor. The golden mean is the ability to laugh at yourself. 

Finding our way from Aristotle, through Umberto Eco, all the way to Betsy Bird, let’s see how this critical ability to laugh at ourselves, to find and use the funny, plays out in three choice humorous texts in Read to Them’s canon… 

*

Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine is the queen of wry. She is funny, headstrong, observant, trenchant, but she’s also self-reflective. She’s got a little Holden Caulfield in her. She’s not just out to make fun of the world. When she messes up, she bounces back and learns. 

Clementine is written in the first person. She tells us embarrassing stories about herself. Sometimes she’s defensive. Sometimes she’s assertive. Sometimes she’s obstreperous. Sometimes she triumphs. But she’s not afraid to tell us these stories – which we can laugh at – so she and we can learn from them. 

Clementine opens when her best friend, Margaret, gets glue in her hair. Somehow, Clementine and Margaret resolve to cut off all her hair as a solution and, somehow, Clementine gets blamed for it: “And then Margaret went all historical, and the art teacher went all historical, and nobody could think of anything to do except the regular thing, which is: send me to the principal’s office.”  

Clementine is not intimidated in the principal’s office. (The battles between Clementine and Principal Rice are a running motif throughout the series.) She is constantly being told to “Pay Attention!” by teachers, but she knows she pays great attention – to the shapes in the clouds and in stains, to Margaret’s empty seat, and even to the lunch lady kissing the custodian in the parking lot. 

Clementine tells us she is “allergic to sitting still” and “lucky…with spectacularful ideas… Once they sproing into your head you have to grab them fast, or else they get bored and bounce away.” Clementine seizes on these ideas. Some work out. Some don’t. But she is undaunted and unafraid to run afoul of adults. 

Sounding a little like Eloise, Clementine notes prospectively in her journal, “I plan to smoke cigars. And I do not plan to get married. Cigars, yes; husband, no.” It is this brisk, witty tone that makes Clementine not only funny, but observant, too. Her new ideas may come and go, but she will try them each out and learn along the way.  

Been there, done that. What’s next? That’s Clementine. 

 * 

Cece Bell, the author and subject of the graphic novel, El Deafo, is an entirely different kid. She is not headstrong, loud, or demonstrative. She does want to fit in and make friends. She is also deaf. El Deafo is the story of how elementary school-aged Cece manages being a deaf kid in the 1970s. 

It’s important to note that El Deafo is a memoir. Cece Bell is looking back at her childhood and depicting it, sharing it with us, it in all its embarrassing, confused, evolving glory. Lots of details are ‘funny’ because they are the ridiculous, true elements of childhood. (‘Can you believe we used to wear shirts like that?’) She is looking back at sometimes awkward or even painful moments in her life, with a comic touch. She is inviting us to laugh and learn from her life, to laugh with her. 

The ongoing story in El Deafo is Cece’s effort to find a friend. She goes through two or three of them before finally landing on Martha. (And there’s also her sweet dalliance with the new boy, Mike Miller.) The genius of Cece Bell, the memoirist, is to turn all the little moments of her childhood into moments of recognition and emotional connection for the reader. Young Cece is so proud of her polka dotted bathing suit and her striped shirts. She seeks the pretty in everything, even the little case to hold her first hearing aid, and the little rosette that cues her superpowers. Simple acts – as when Laura asks Cece, “Want some Fritos?” at the cafeteria table, or when Martha invites Cece to play, “I’m making dirt soup. Wanna help?”– show how simply and easily kids connect emotionally. The little details of ‘70s nostalgia – The Meanest Squirrel I Ever Met, Star Trek, the Flintstones, the Partridge Family – serve to orient the reader and help us recognize, “I know that feeling, too.” Which means we trust Cece. 

 Even the depiction of how voices sound, “unnah wawah” (under water) while sad, come off as funny. “Toe dabaw!” (Throw the ball!) the kids cry in the gym. When offered a choice of cherry pop (“Jerry’s mop”), orange juice (“shoes”), or a Coke, Cece answers, “I’ll have the goat!” We’re invited to sympathize and laugh and identify with Cece all at the same time. 

 When Cece shows us her resolve, learning to say ‘No’ to the friend who bosses her around; saying ‘No’ to the friend who insists on talking too loud in deference to her deafness; even saying ‘No’ to the friend who tries to convince Cece to learn sign language, we trust that she is finding herself. All of these moments are funny – funny because they’re so emotionally true. But Cece shows us how she locates her strength. When someone at school teasingly calls her Deafo, she is taken aback, but she does not break down. She ponders. She considers. And then she laughs. She runs up the stairs, and looks in the mirror, and echoing Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickel she says “You wanna call me ‘Deafo’? Go ahead! Yeah, that’s right! Just call me… El Deafo.” 

 Somewhere, Betsy Bird is cheering. 

 * 

Aven Green, the girl with no arms, who I quoted at the top of this little essay, has already developed the ability to laugh at herself, when she arrives in Arizona in Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. She is comfortable with herself, and oh so deft with her feet. She can eat, she can cook, she can play soccer, she can even play guitar. 

Young Aven as depicted in Aven Green, Baking Machine, a three book series adapted for younger readers.

But when she moves to a new state, she has to start all over again, and is just as sensitive and vulnerable as Cece. She finds a cathartic outlet in her blog, where she blows off steam by making fun of all the things she doesn’t get to do (“No getting caught picking my nose”), or doesn’t have to do (“No fighting over the arm rest at the movies”), or isn’t able to do (“No golf”).  

It’s when she starts to make new friends that we see the transformative power of her perspective. Connor, the barking kid with Tourette’s Syndrome, is amazed that Aven can make jokes about her armlessness. Connor: “What happened to your arms?” Aven: “I’m always misplacing stuff.” Zion, the boy who eats alone because he’s self-conscious about his weight, can’t believe it either. They’re both delighted by her sense of humor. (And Betsy Bird is fist-pumping.) 

But Aven learns, too, from both of these friends. She understands that other kids are dealing with challenges that dominate their lives, and she tries to help them! She’s the one who goads Connor into attending the Tourette’s support group, which is by turns hilarious and wistful… 

It was strange listening to everyone speak among a cacophony of barking, farting, whooping, shrieking, and chicken nipples. It was also strangely comforting. No one cared about my lack of arms; they were all far too caught up in their own struggles. And I, for once, felt completely normal among this group of misfits. 

Aven seeks to teach Connor and Zion how to be as strong and self-reflective and confident as she is. But Aven, too, like Cece (and Melody Brooks in Out of My Mind, and August Pullman in Wonder), remains vulnerable. It turns out that being able to laugh at yourself is not something you can just snap your fingers to achieve.  

They are able to laugh at Zion’s cosplaying parents. And Aven suggests that she could “just meow” to try to fit in with the Tourette’s kids. But Connor is not amused when Dexter, the boy who can’t avoid saying “chicken nipple,” starts calling her Armless Aven. It makes him feel protective. 

Funny can live on the knife edge, especially teasing funny. Teasing can be affirming among trusted friends, but we have to leave it to each adolescent to find the funny and define the boundaries of what enables them to laugh at themselves, to find their own golden mean at what it’s safe to laugh at. 

 *

We want students to be able to laugh at themselves to navigate the social demands of elementary, middle, and high school. 

We want them to learn from their foibles, their mistakes. To laugh at them and learn from them. This is the essence of the learning cycle. You try something out, you see how it goes, you figure out what doesn’t work (which sometimes means accepting constructive criticism), and then you make adjustments and try it out again. And the cycle continues. This is true for a science experiment, or for writing a paper, or a song, or presenting a project. It’s the essence of learning. 

It’s also the essence of entrepreneurship. Most ideas fail. But the entrepreneurial culture embraces learning from these failures – essentially laughing at your business failures – picking yourself up and trying again. Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley meet every year at FailCon – a convention in which entrepreneurs can share their failings in a mutually supportive festival – laughing at, and learning from, their failures. 

Why is it so important to be able to laugh at yourself? To be able to learn and grow. To be able “to find the kernel of humor in dire situations,” as Betsy Bird says it. Humor in children’s literature is not just to entertain. It’s instructive, without the reader even knowing it. 

 

 


Interview with Angela Dominguez, author of Stella Díaz Has Something to Say

Since Stella Díaz Has Something to Say joined the Read to Them catalog of books in 2021, thousands of students across the country have shared this special book for their school-wide reading program, and the feedback from schools has been overwhelming. Students, teachers, and families all fall in love with sweet Stella as they root for her to find her voice. I recently had the chance to ask some questions of the wonderful creator of the words and pictures for Stella, the talented author and illustrator Angela Dominguez.

What kind of reader were you when you were Stella’s age? Did you prefer nonfiction like Stella, or were you more of a fiction reader? Do you remember any favorite books or authors from elementary school?

I adored books of all kinds when I was Stella’s age. Both nonfiction and fiction. I loved animal books like Stella, but also biographies. It was empowering to discover people who overcame adversity. I always root for the underdog even to this day.

Books were my entertainment, my escape, and fuel for my imagination. As a shy kid, I especially loved reading.  Because I struggled with language, I found the words printed on the page much less intimidating than the words I had to speak aloud.

It’s hard to choose my favorites of that age, but I’d probably say Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Shel Silverstein, Jon Scieszka, and the Babysitter Club books were in constant rotation on my nightstand.

You are both an author and an illustrator. Is there a role that you prefer?

That’s tricky. I don’t believe I could choose one over the other. Every time I start writing, I’m convinced it’s my favorite. The same thing happens when I start illustrating! They both are rewarding in different ways. That said, I’m newer to writing novels so it’s very exciting to see how I’m evolving as an author. I mostly think I know what I’m doing now.

You have illustrated your own books, but you have also illustrated books for others including Richmond-favorite Meg Medina and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. How is it different to illustrate someone else’s words?

It’s so gratifying to illustrate books for people you admire. I’ve been lucky to have done it a few times. When I’m writing picture books, I usually have images in mind. Then I’ll revise the story with the mindset that I have both tools to tell the story.

When I’m the only illustrator, all I have is the author’s words and my imagination to guide me. Then the author, the publisher, and myself come together to make the best possible book we can. That can produce some exciting results.

Stella Díaz Has Something to Say was your first novel for young people. How is writing a novel different from writing a picture book? Do you like one form better?

I always tell young readers that the biggest difference is there are way more words. My picture books can have less than a hundred words and Stella is around 26,000 words. With a novel, I’m focused more on the plot and I rely heavily on an outline. With a picture book, the images do most of the heavy lifting. Both types of writing are so fun, but Stella has been one of my favorite projects. It’s such a big part of me.

Throughout the series, Stella is working hard to improve her Spanish. Do you have any advice for readers who are trying to improve their ability to speak the language of their family?

Knowing two languages is such a gift. It means double the friendships! I recommend practicing and not to feel embarrassed if you make mistakes. It’s how we learn. Sometimes doing things that are uncomfortable is the best thing you can do for yourself.

I know you do a lot of school visits – both virtually and now back to in person. What do you hear from students who have read Stella Díaz Has Something to Say as part of a school-wide reading program?

I adore school visits, but the Stella visits are my most meaningful. Seeing kids connect with Stella warms my heart and they relate to her in many ways. Some are shy, some are dealing with a bully, some love art, some love sea creatures, some know Spanish,  and some are immigrants which is all a part of who Stella is. Whatever their connection may be, whenever they tell me that they are just like Stella, I feel emotional. It goes beyond what I could have imagined for the book.

What do you hope readers take away from reading Stella with their families and classmates?

I hope they will have more empathy for each other. It’s something that feels like it can be in short supply. I also hope it sparks their curiosity for nature and our beautiful oceans. Most importantly, I hope it inspires them to create and read more books.

For fans of Stella, do you have other middle grade novels or authors that you would recommend?

There are so many great books, but here are just a few:  Pie in the Sky by Remi Lai, Team Pom Squid Happens by my pal Isabel Roxas, anything by Meg Medina or Erin Entrada Kelly, and Bob by Rebecca Stead and Wendy Mass.

What about for budding authors and illustrators – any advice for them?

Create it as often as you can. Push yourself but be kind to yourself. Sometimes you make bad art or the story is not working, but that’s okay! You’ll do better. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it makes you really good at something. Finally, revisions are your friend. I always drag my feet to revise, but it’s thrilling to see how much your story improves.

Congratulations on the publication of the fourth book in the Stella series – Stella Díaz to the Rescue. Did you always plan for Stella to be a series? Are there more Stella books coming?

Thank you! It was a pleasant surprise to me. I wrote Stella Díaz Has Something to Say originally as a picture book, but it didn’t quite work. I revisited the story and it organically grew over the course of a few years into a novel. Once I finished it, I thought, “Whew, that’s over!”

However, something inside me kept wondering about Stella and what adventures she might continue to have. Thankfully, my publisher and editor have been so supportive that I’ve been able to do more. I’m wrapping up a fifth Stella Díaz book and that will be sadly the end of Stella for now. However, she may live on in a different way one day. All I know is I’m grateful to have written five books and to have had all this time with her character. I’ll miss her, but she lives inside me and I hope for Stella fans.

To stay in touch with Angela and hear more about Stella, you can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And be sure to check out her website!


Betsy Bird Meets Us at The Lamp-Post

This month at the Lamp-Post, we talk about the role of humor in children’s literature with the always funny Betsy Bird.  

Betsy is a Renaissance woman in the world of children’s literature – a librarian, author, blogger, and podcast host, and we are quite sure she has read almost everything published for children…ever. She edited Funny Girl, the 2018 collection of hilarious stories and comics by women writers. And her first very funny novel came out in 2021, Long Road to the Circus, illustrated by David Small. 

During this wide-ranging conversation, we look at humor from many different perspectives.  

  • On using humor as a superpower – “Own the humor. Use it…almost like a protective shield in some ways. Like, ‘You can’t laugh at me, dude. It was a joke on purpose.’” (7:33-8:07)
  • On humor’s role in helping kids with big topics – “An author has an ability to reach in and just grab your heart and squeeze it. If they are using humor, then they’re loosening that grip a little bit and they are letting you feel that it’s serious but that you are in safe hands.” (48:30-49:40) 
  • On the role of weird – “I think that weird doesn’t get enough respect in these cases. I like books that take big swings. They just try something weird. I think it makes them more memorable.” (1:02 – 1:03) 

Betsy makes some recommendations for funny books that she loves. For graphic novels, she recommends 

  • DogMan series by Dav Pilkey 
  • Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series by Nathan Hale 
  • Amelia Rules series by Jimmy Gownley 
  • Breaking Cat News series by Georgia Dunn 
  • Hilo series by Judd Winick 
  • Max and the Midknights series by Lincoln Peirce 

 For middle grade novels, she recommends 

  • It’s the End of the World and I’m in My Bathing Suit by Justin A. Reynolds 
  • Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm 
  • Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis 

Who Needs Funny Books in the Age of Cat Videos?  

I taught preschool from 2003 until 2019. In that time, “screen time” went from watching Sesame Street DVDs while parents were making dinner to iPads in the laps of toddlers in grocery store buggies. Endless rounds of The Wheels on the Bus in the carpool line were replaced by – well, I quite frankly have no idea, but it was on a screen. And don’t get me started on having Alexa read bedtime stories…  

I will spare you my old-lady rant about technology and little kids. But, it does raise an interesting question about the need for funny children’s books. If the only reason for humor in children’s books is to make kids laugh, then we don’t need funny books at all. There are plenty of videos online that kids find hilarious. No need to pore over lists of funny books (like the ones put out annually by the always-funny Betsy Bird – see here and here). No need to drag a big stack home from the library. So inefficient! Instead, fire up the iPad or smartphone, click on the YouTube app, and let the shenanigans begin. No heavy tote bag, no overdue fines, no effort on the part of a grown up reader. Ahhh, bliss. Right? 

Wrong. It will come as no surprise that I firmly believe there is still a place for funny books in the lives of our children. Maybe now more than ever. This month at the Lamp-Post, I will lay out my case for the importance of funny books for kids and the grown-ups who read to them. Along the way, we’ll visit with three books from the Read to Them list – Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, El Deafo by Cece Bell, and Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling. And, we’ll take a peek inside some other titles, too, just for fun.  

Clementine tells the story of a little girl with a big personality. This first book in the series introduces us to Clementine, her family, her friend Margaret, and her life at school and in her apartment building. Clementine finds herself in all sorts of scrapes – from cutting off her friend’s hair to trying to solve the building’s pigeon problem to her irritation that she has a food-related name and her brother does not. Pennypacker laces all of these troubles with delightfully humorous word play and insights from Clementine.  

El Deafo is the graphic novel memoir of Cece Bell’s childhood in the 1970s when she lost her hearing to an illness. Young Cece adapts to her bulky hearing aids with the help of her superhero alter-ego, El Deafo. As many graphic novels do, El Deafo highlights a wide range of emotions, from Cece’s despair over problems with friends, to her self-satisfied joy at her new-found celebrity status, gained through her Sonic Ear and the teacher’s transmitter.  

In Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus we meet Aven Green who was born without arms. She has learned all sorts of ways to navigate her life, but things get more complicated when her family moves to a new town. While being armless is certainly a challenge, Aven finds the funny in many unfunny situations. She also helps her friends Connor and Zion look at the world through a funnier lens, all while solving a mystery about the Old West tourist attraction where she and her family live.  

Let’s take a closer look at humor and children’s literature, using these three books as a starting point. 

 Humor helps kids believe in books and the people who read them aloud. 

Laughing at a book together is an act of trust. To pull off a silly picture book, the reader has to really mean it – and play it up. And, by doing so, you show the listener that you can be trusted. Only people worthy of a child’s trust are willing to be ridiculous to make a book fun. As Mo Willems often says, to truly embody his books, you need a “shame-ectomy.” You need to have any sense of shame removed and only then are you ready to be the Pigeon.  

Once the listener believes in the person reading the book, then – like magic – they believe in books, too. Think of funny picture books as the gateway drug to being a book person. Once you land them with a pigeon who dreams of driving a bus, the whole world of books can open up to them. And, they will take your hand and walk into all of those books with you because they trust you. 

So, where do you go next? That’s easy – you go to Clementine and El Deafo and the many other books for new readers and early chapter book listeners. These books both extend that funny runway and introduce other ideas, too. Don’t get me wrong – there are real existential questions in funny picture books. (See, for example I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.) But, picture books tend to build to one big punchline, and they get there fast. Books like Clementine and El Deafo weave the funny stuff throughout a longer experience, scaffolding reading and listening endurance, building those literacy muscles.  

Instead of one big joke, these longer books feature a series of funny moments – more like a sitcom than a gag. There are funny lines in both Clementine and El Deafo that trigger memories of a laugh track for those of us who grew up with 1970s sitcoms. Consider the scene where Clementine is trying to cheer up her little brother: 

“I grabbed two slices of bologna and bit them into a pair of glasses, which is a trick I invented and only I know and now you will, too.” 

Or when Cece is watching TV and the actor turns away from the camera: 

“Who knows what’s going on now? I sure can’t lip-read a butt!” 

When you read these bits aloud to a child, the laugh track is natural and so much more appealing. You build a bond between yourself and your listener and between your listener and books.  

 Humor helps kids see their own hilarity. 

In my experience, kids are pretty funny. Sometimes they are real comedians, with timing to rival the most famous stand-up comics. But, more often, they are just funny in the moment. They view the world through eyes of wonder (until adults ruin it for them). When you really look at the world as something amazing as it unfolds in front of you, there is a lot of funny out there. Ok, some of it has to do with the funniest words in the English language – butt (see Cece above), poop, fart, and underwear – but some of it is more than that. If you look at a squirrel with wonder, pretty soon you are creating a whole narrative about the crazy things that squirrel might do. And, yes, the hilarious capers of the squirrel, seen through the eyes of a child, are likely to involve butts and poop. But they will also involve friends, adventure, escape, and mischief. (Some special grown-ups can do this, too – see this conversation with the amazing Lynne Rae Perkins, for example.)

Funny books let kids see that it is perfectly legit to tell funny stories. In fact, you might just get your funny story made into a book! Every kid who has ever thought they are secretly a superhero will be heartened by Cece Bell’s own funny superhero identity. When she shows off the “Mega-Magnification of the all-powerful Rosette,” then anyone’s undershirt can have magical powers, and undershirts are almost as funny as underwear.  

Kids with siblings always have funny thoughts about those other kids in their house. Clementine gives voice to that funny stuff. 

Okay, fine, my brother’s name is not really Spinach. But I got stuck with a name that is also a fruit, and it’s not fair that he didn’t. The only thing worse than a fruit name is a vegetable name, so that’s what I think he should have. I have collected a lot of names for him. 

Voilà – it is perfectly fine to think funny thoughts and say funny things about your little brother because there it is, printed in a book. Heck, you can even call him Radish or Broccoli! 

And, while most kids have two functioning arms, all kids have something that they are self-conscious about. So, when Aven spins outlandish tales about how she lost her arms, she is showing kids that they can find a way to make their own perceived shortcomings less embarrassing. One of my favorites is her story about losing her arms to a terrible trapeze accident:  

I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply for drama. “When he caught me, my shoulder sockets came loose and my arms tore right off.” 

He gaped at me. “What?” 

Photo by Matthew T Rader, https://matthewtrader.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88955618

“It was awful,” I went on. “Him just hanging up there holding some arms, blood showering the screaming audience. It was all over the news. Didn’t you see it?”  

These books help to preserve that sense of wonder, and to grow a belief that humor is not just allowed – it’s cool. It builds the ability within children to find the humor roaming around in their lives. It tells kids that they can be in on the joke and, in fact, be part of the joke.  

 Humor helps lighten heavy literary loads. 

Throughout the history of literature, humor has been used to add comic relief to tragic stories. (See, for example, the bawdy Nurse in Romeo and Juliet.) Children’s book authors have the unique opportunity to create stories to help real kids facing real stuff in real life. These books are essential for kids because they help build a toolkit for whatever life has in store. They support kids facing similar trials, and they build empathy in kids lucky enough not to be facing those same trials. But these books can only help if their stories get read and absorbed, and a little humor helps make sure that happens.  

When you finish Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, you don’t say, “WOW – life without arms would be so horrible. I am so glad that book is over so I never have to think about that again!” Instead, you say, “WOW – life without arms is really challenging, and I just don’t see how Aven does all that stuff with her feet, but she does and she even laughs about it too!” In fact, Dusti Bowling includes a hilarious list of 20 fantastic things about not having arms. Here are just a few examples:  

No rough elbows. My mom has eczema, so I know what a curse rough elbows can be. 

No getting caught picking my nose. My shoes are usually in the way. 

No golf. Well, I suppose I could figure out a way to play golf but I’m so not gonna because golf is booooring.  

No flabby flapjack arms when I get old. My great-grandma has those. Hopefully she’s not reading this.  

By the time you finish the book, you are pretty thankful that you have arms, but you are not in deep despair over Aven’s fate. And, when the next bump in the road comes along – pebble or boulder-sized – you might just say, “If Aven can get dressed without arms, maybe I can persevere, too.”  

I guarantee you that kids reading El Deafo are wishing they had a Sonic Ear so they could listen in on everything their teacher does outside the classroom, especially going to the bathroom!  

<tinkle tinkle tinkle> 

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA Sweet relief.”

And sweet Clementine provides some humor for kids who are constantly told to “Pay attention.” Like this scene from the art room, right at the beginning of the book. 

Then I got busy working on my project so I wouldn’t have to hear any “Clementine-pay-attention!”s.  

which is followed closely by: 

“Clementine, you need to pay attention!” the art teacher said one more time. And just like the other times, I was paying attention. 

I was paying attention to Margaret’s empty seat. 

These three books are part of a category that deal with heavy themes but with a hefty dose of humor to soften the blow. Think of a spectrum going from nothing-but-laughs at one end to deep misery at the other end. Both ends of the spectrum have their place, but a lot of great work gets done in the middle, mixing comedy and tragedy to deliver a story that lasts. These are the books that we love here at Read to Them – books leavened with laughter that have something else, too.  

Stories that are full of hijinks can also have some depth. A new favorite around here is The Terrible Two by Jory John and Mac Barnett. Come for the cow jokes and pranks, stay for the Prankster’s Code and finding your kindred spirit in a new place. As we move along the continuum, changing the mix of pathos and humor, we come to other favorites. Jason Reynolds adds boogers, complicated handshakes, and a bus falling from the sky to the real-life challenges facing the kids in Look Both Ways. And Katherine Applegate gives us a giant imaginary cat to help understand homelessness in Crenshaw and a wise-cracking crow to address Islamophobia in Wishtree 

People much smarter than me have said that children’s books must have hope – indeed it is the presence of hope that separates children’s literature from adult literature. I think we should add humor to that list of essential ingredients for building bonds with our emerging readers. In times of great uncertainty and upheaval, such as our children have lived through for the past two years, these books are even more critical. As Aven says in her list of “twenty supplies you need to survive middle school when you don’t have arms,” a sense of humor is a huge help in facing life’s challenges – for kids and for adults. Books like Clementine, El Deafo, and Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus just might be the key to incubating and growing that essential tool.  

 


6 Great Books to Read on Mother’s Day

Spend time with the amazing Mom in your life by reading aloud together this Mother’s Day. To get you started, Read to Them has culled a list of six titles with unforgettable Moms, Grandmas, and even some not-so-conventional maternal figures, too. Check them out below:

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña – This Newbery Award winning picture book takes place over the course of a single bus ride CJ shares with his grandmother. When CJ wonders why they don’t have a car like his friends, Nana helps him see the beauty in their city and their routine.

 

 

 

Granny Torrelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech – Rosie doesn’t always get along with her best friend, Bailey, but spending an afternoon in the kitchen with Granny Torrelli never fails to bring them together. Using her recipes and her stories, Granny Torrelli reminds readers of all ages about the importance of love, life, and friendship – all while serving up a delicious bowl of soup!

 

 

A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold – In this Read to Them staple, Bixby Alexander Tam struggles to see the world like the other kids around him.  Bat, however, has an incredible mom who encourages his special interests and meets him at his level with no small amount of support and patience.

 

 

 

Dragons in a Bag by Zetta Elliot – When an emergency sends Jax and his mother scrambling, Jax finds himself in the company of Ma, who insists she isn’t Jax’s grandmother even though she took care of Jax’s mom when she was little. The one thing Ma can’t deny, though, is all the strange things happening around her. Join Jax as he and Ma embark on the dragon egg delivery of a life-time!

 

 

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown – Roz is a lone robot who washes up on a deserted island filled with hostile wildlife. It’s only when Roz adopts an orphaned gosling – and fully embraces the complexities of motherhood – that she finds herself supported by a family far bigger than she ever imagined.

 

 

 

Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper – Melody has cerebral palsy, which means that she is unable to speak, write, or move around without the aid of a wheelchair. With the aid of her neighbor and her mother (her dad, too!), Melody is able to find her voice for the first time.

 

 

 

If you read any of these titles to celebrate Mother’s Day, be sure to share your photos with Read to Them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Happy reading!


Join Read to Them for Children’s Book Week!

Since 1919, Children’s Book Week has endeavored to celebrate and bolster books for younger audiences. It’s the longest-running literacy initiative in the United States, and you can participate on an individual, small group, or even community-wide level. Be sure to check your local libraries and bookstores to see if there are any in-person events in your area.

The event takes place May 2nd – 8th. You won’t want to miss it!

This year, Read to Them has asked staff to share the children’s books that impacted their lives. Dive into the list below – and be sure to share your favorite children’s books with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

 

Kayla Aldrich – Programs Specialist

Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman

I grew up with a house full of dogs, and any kind of book or media that featured a sweet-faced, furry friend could’ve been labeled Kayla Bait. Eastman’s illustrations were so bright, colorful, and distinct (just like the other Eastman classic, Are You My Mother?) that I can still picture the red and the yellow dogs riding off toward a setting, marigold sun at the book’s close.

All that fun stuff aside, this was the first book that I can recall reading aloud with my parents. The silly, borderline nonsensical narrative was something that all of us got a kick out of. It became a bedtime routine staple, and the copy that’s on my childhood bookshelf has the well-worn spine to show for it. Even now, my dad and I still quote the book’s running joke of “Do you like my hat?” “I do not!”

Whether we realize it at the time or not, the books we encounter as children shape us into the readers we become as adults. I wouldn’t trade my time with Go, Dog, Go! for anything.

 

Bruce Coffey – Director of Programs

The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

The first “hard” book I read and didn’t put down.  Somehow realized/recognized there was something here there, even if it was not presented as easy or normal as I was used to.  I soldiered through and ended up growing in the process.  Charmed and blessed.  And grew as a reader.  Became a more sophisticated reader.

 

 

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White

I like to say that Read to Them (the office anyway) is the house that Humphrey built.  This may be true, but it wouldn’t have happened w/out The Trumpet of the Swan.  This is the first book we read as a school at Fox Elementary – an All School Read, we called it Fox Reads One Book – the first book I prepared a supporting resource suite of materials for (including the vaunted Principal’s Talking Points).  Read to Them founder, Gary Anderson, and I ordered 5000 copies and stored them in my garage, and when a school wanted to try One School, One Book, I went to my garage and took 6 boxes of books to the post office.  RTT’s early garage days.

 

Anne Curry – Regional Outreach Manager

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes

My best friend gave my newborn daughter Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes this book 24 years ago.

On the inside, she wrote, “May you always have the thrill of a purple plastic purse in your heart.”

I love my friend’s inscription, but this book holds even more treasured blessings like the values of patience, personal responsibility, courage, and forgiveness.

Lilly impatiently wants to show off her purple plastic purse, but her classmates and teacher, Mr. Slinger, are not excited. It’s not the right time! They are in the middle of a lesson! Lilly is hurt, and she becomes angry. The magic of this book is watching Lilly process disappointment and anger, ultimately realizing she made mistakes. And graciously, Mr. Slinger accepts the apology. Our world could learn some lessons from Lilly and Mr. Slinger.

 

Emily Gerber – Marketing Manager

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

Growing up, one of my favorite children’s books was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. My kindergarten class did a whole art unit where we made pictures inspired by Carle’s illustrations. We drew animals and then glued small, square scraps of tissue paper to paper onto them to bring their fur and scales to life. I remember being so excited about the art project because I adored the story – and now I realize, as an adult, that it was my first experience where a book transcended the boundary of its pages and inspired new creativity, imagination, and connection.

 

Sara Hudson – Programs Manager

The Question of Miracles by Elana K. Arnold

Iris and Sarah are best friends – the kind of friends everyone wants to have – until Sarah is tragically killed in a freak accident, leaving Iris with unanswerable questions. Iris and her family move from Southern California to Corvallis, Oregon because her mom gets a dream job (and maybe because the family thinks a fresh start will be helpful for Iris). In rainy Oregon, Iris is befriended by Boris, a boy in her class who is a medical miracle. He wasn’t supposed to survive more than a few hours after birth, but he did, perhaps because of the fervent prayers of some nuns to a long-dead Pope. Now, the Vatican is looking to certify Boris as a real miracle to help that Pope to sainthood. Iris thinks that if there was a miracle for Boris, maybe there can be a miracle for Sarah and she can still be alive, or at least still contact Iris.

Why it impacted me: This is a quiet book. The big upheaval happens before the book starts, and we meet Iris after Sarah’s death. The details of the accident are revealed later in the book, but the story is really about Iris’s journey with grief. Elana has successfully written a children’s book with no villains – no awful bullies; no terrible teachers; no absent, negligent, or abusive parents. The villain is grief – unfair, unexpected, and unpredictable grief. It is such an honest book filled with people doing their best in a terrible situation. On a personal note, I am friends with a family facing a similar set of circumstances having lost their daughter to an act of violence with a friend of hers looking on. This little book went straight to that place in my heart trying to make sense of that terrible tragedy. While Elana doesn’t spoon feed the reader any answers, she does what she is supposed to do. She offers hope without dismissing the pain.

For more information on Children’s Book Week, visit Every Child a Reader.