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:
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?”
“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>
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.