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.
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.