Hairy eyebrows that look like wrestlers in a mudbath. An evil villain who dives under a chair and retrieves a dog toy in her mouth on public television. Kid’s books are meant to be full of humour of one sort of another, be it exaggerated similes that are fun to imagine for a moment, the comeuppance of villains (or even the merely mean) or an escalating series of avoidable disasters (hopefully funny and embarrassing).
Humour allows you to deal with virtually any theme or issue in a kid’s book, with reason, because humour, like magic and a great story, pulls young readers in.
Come for the story, stay for the enjoyment of it. Enjoy the world. Laugh and cry and be afraid in safety because it will all work out in the end. That’s the promise a kid’s book makes and that the villains pay for their meanness in a way that is amuses and satisfies the reader.
There’s a rule in sitcom that there should be three laughs per minute of script – some will be big belly laughs, others might be wordplay or the set up for a pratfall later. While there’s no rule like this for comedy in kid’s books, in theory there’s a lot more scope for comic moments. We get to write about magical animals, portals, alternate universes and surreal worlds and households.
Most often the comic moments are generated by the world and characters, if you allow them to breathe. I often chuckle evilly or giggle in my head when I’m writing for kids, be it animation or, currently, my Wulfie series. (I wish I had a loud laugh but I don’t. I often have to tell people I have found stuff funny, which is so wrong, but when I do start giggling, it’s unstoppable.) I mine for these moments in a story because I’ve realised that these are the parts of a book that kids also love, and parents reading to their children.
Right now, whatever we are going through as parents, teachers, grandparents, kids are missing friends, school, hugs, extended family and ‘normal’ life. It feels more important than ever that kids need to laugh, or snigger or grin while they read.
They’ve little or no control over what’s going on in the world but they can escape and have fun between the pages of a book.
Besides, hearing a child laugh as they read is glorious.
And, if you’ve written the book they’re laughing at, it’s truly magical!
Comedy usually comes at the expense of someone else’s pain – so the big comic moments in kid’s books tend to be dished out to the villains of the story. If the central characters have suffered funny or awful happenings at their hands, the fun arrives when they get their comeuppance, usually because of their greed, vanity or general nastiness. However, for this to work, readers have to be rooting for your central characters, which means that getting to the point where they outwit the villain has to be tricky.
Not giving anything away about Wulfie: Beast in Show but with Aunt Ilda, let’s just say what happens still makes me giggle to think of it. (I’m not sure if an actress playing the part would feel the same!)
For this to work, these central characters tend to be brave (at least eventually), resilient (even if not by choice), creative and lovable because children, like most readers, are drawn to character. As they face unfair or unexpected obstacles, the bond becomes stronger, until they somehow triumph just in time – but humour makes it a more enjoyable journey and every story can do with a healthy dollop of it.
‘If your head doesn’t hurt, you’re not working hard enough.’ This came from the tutor on a comedy workshop I did, and he was right. Writing funny stuff can be hard work! Sometimes it’s a matter of changing one word – one funnier word can make all the difference – or the order of phrases. More often, it’s brainstorming a whole pile of options, each more ridiculous that the next until you find the moment that makes you feel like a giggling child again.
Then it’s all worth the effort because those moments add another layer to the storytelling; they make a scene zing in a way it didn’t before.
But all humour is subjective. Some kids love slapstick, or zany surreal comedy, others like humour grounded in character and others prefer a laugh-out-loud comical whirlwind. Most kids are well able to understand satire and sarcasm as well as witty wordplay and jokes, so long as it fits with the story and the world.
If you can find out what your child enjoys, you can feet that particular need until they move on. This is why it’s always a good idea to read a few pages of a book before you gift it to a child, so you know they will enjoy reading it. The point is for reading to be enjoyable.
If kids are laughing or smiling as they read a book, they are enjoying the experience of reading. They are absorbed. They will read again.
Wulfie: Beast in Show is published by Little Island, and available to purchase from all good booksellers.
Any opinions expressed may not truly reflect those of the FCBG