A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Roll up, roll up, and put on your serious faces, because today we are talking about bums, farts, falling over, puns, incongruities and unexpectedness, and huge, whopping, massive, humungous, colossal, ginormous, bigger than the entire universe, larger than Trump’s ego…
Oh, I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.
Ah yes, exaggeration. That was it.
On no account are you to laugh, because this is a very serious topic. Remember what I said in the first sentence about serious faces? No, you probably don’t remember, because you were too busy focusing on ‘bums’ and ‘farts’. But if you do not have a serious face, I strongly advise you to go out and purchase one now, or else borrow one from a businessperson whose soul has been sucked out by the vampiric world of facts and figures.
Specifically, what we will be talking about is writing funny kidlit. By which I mean children’s literature, although no doubt somewhere there is a herd of young goats putting on a production of Henry IV Part II and discussing the metaphysical poets. More spefically, spiffecelly, speffiffly (aaargh, why can’t I spell?) we’ll be looking at funny writing in books for young children, just because I have little expertise in anyone over the age of about 5. Including myself.
Let’s get toilet humour out of the way first. It is a common misconception that small children love toilet humour. They don’t. They ADORE it. And I should know, because one of my children spent at least a year incapable of saying a single sentence without the word ‘poo’ in it somewhere. This obviously counts as solid scientific poo –no, no, I mean ‘proof’. And let’s face it, who doesn’t love a good fart joke? You may think you’ve grown out of them, but I defy anyone to come to my house and remain stony-faced while one of my children (known in my house as the Fart Master) unleashes WWIII from his backside at the dinner table at the same time as my husband belches in chorus.
The problem is that you can have too much of a good thing. My child letting off a few nuclear missile-sized farts at the dinner table is funny. Until you realise that his bottom is probably responsible for about 90% of global warming. And global warming is not funny at all. So along with Common Misconception No. 1, that children love toilet humour, let me introduce you formally to Common Misconception No. 2: that all you need in a children’s book is lots of bums and farts and you’ll be sorted. If you started reading a book that said ‘bum’ on every page you might giggle for the first few pages, before sighing ‘Oh, bum!’ and going off to read something better. Possibly while sitting on the toilet. Like anything, scatological humour gets tedious. A few bum jokes are fine. They draw a laugh. But never, ever at the expense of plot and character. As with all comedy, timing is key. Think of it as the equivalent of sneezing neatly into your handkerchief rather than all over the pizza intended for your entire family to share (and then passing off the snot as extra mozzarella).
So, where were we? I seem to have hit a bit of a brick wall. Ah yes, that was it: slapstick. Falling over, being whacked, running face-first into a custard pie…Now, serious faces again. Because of course there is nothing at all funny about slipping on a banana skin, realising that your underpants are starting to melt, getting tangled up in the next door neighbour’s socks hanging on the washing line, being squashed by an evil giant squid, or having blue foam squirted in your face. Unless these things are happening to someone else, in which case they can be hilarious. Slapstick is often regarded as a lesser form of comedy, playing as it does to our (rather guilty) sense of schadenfreude. But there’s a reason why the likes of Laurel and Hardy were so successful. And while adults might be slightly snooty about slapstick (‘no, no, Hugo, there is nothing at all amusing here. Let us instead read a serious book about the history of art by Ludwig von Baldass’. Real author, by the way), children have no such sense of it being a guilty pleasure. Slapstick is definitely one of the key components of a funny children’s book.
What’s next? Oh my cod! Puns! But I’m far too fond of a pun even for my own good, and definitely for yours. I will not PUNish you further, other than to say that puns, visual or verbal, can elicit what I call a grortle, which, of course, is a cross between a groan and a chortle.
Now, incongruities. By which I don’t mean the fact that I’m sitting here in PJs, dressing gown and slippers even though it’s nearly midday. Although the postman whom I just answered the door to no doubt thinks that’s highly amusing. Incongruities merely refer to things in unexpected places. A sort of mini-mash-up, if you will. Dinosaurs aren’t in themselves funny. Fairies aren’t in themselves funny. But have a book that has dinosaurs and fairies as the protagonists, and you might be on to something. Broccoli isn’t funny. Ears aren’t funny (well, mine definitely aren’t. Very definitely). Broccoli sprouting from your ears is.
And that brings us on to the last topic in a by no means exhaustive list of how to write funny. That thing which is huge, whopping, massive, humungous, colossal, ginormous, bigger than the entire universe, larger than Trump’s ego: EXAGGERATION. Illustrators can have great fun with exaggeration, giving characters features which, in real life, would require lengthy surgical procedures to remedy. But exaggeration need not just be visual (and exaggerating features can of course be cruel. My bathroom mirror seems to be permanently on exaggeration mode, judging by its depiction of the size of my nose). You can exaggerate situations. For instance, you could have a story in which the world’s most powerful nation is run by not only a moron but an orange moron who has such a non-existent grasp of world affairs that he thinks ‘Nambia’ is a country and has the equivalent of diarrhoea when it comes to tweeting. Hilarious. Oh wait…
But returning to the world of kidlit (for children, not for goats, don’t forget), I will leave you with some immortal words from Andy Stanton’s ‘You’re a Bad Man, Mr Gum’, in which he employs all these tactics and more, and exaggerates so brilliantly that once you’ve finished belly laughing you’ll be in complete awe of his talent. In fact, it’s my favourite funny children’s book. If you’ve just read all the tosh I’ve just written, apologies for wasting your time. To learn how to write funny, just go out and read Mr Gum instead. Buy it, borrow it or steal it immediately (unless, like me, you’re wearing your PJs. In which case you might like to get dressed first).
“She ran past a cat’s ears which were lying on a pavement and a cat’s nose and whiskers which were lying on the pavement and a cat’s body and tail and legs and eyes and claws which were lying on the paveme – in fact it was all just one cat, lying on the pavement.”
That’s the trick to writing funny. Combining lots of elements, to make up one hilarious cat.