The Power of Laughter: Something Funny This Way Comes
Never underestimate the power of laughter.
If you can tickle a funny bone, provoke a giggle, elicit a snicker or send them to the floor rolling with laughter you’ve already done half the job of winning someone over to your story or your point of view. It’s true of adults and–if anything–it’s doubly true of kids. I’ve learned only too well in my years of librarianship that I’ll be asked several times a day “where are the funny books?” Kids are regularly looking for things to read that will not just absorb their interest, but amuse them in the process and maybe make them laugh out loud
While humor can be a genre all it’s own, there are plenty of books out there with science fiction and fantasy plots that involve–and quite possibly depend upon–humor.
Troll Farts and Goblin Poop: Bathroom Humor
Farts, poop, vomit and other gross stuff (usually that comes out of the body of a person or creature in the story) is at the low end of the humor scale. It’s also the type of fiction that tends to be written for very young readers, particularly boys. This kind of humor takes whatever subject it has decided to cover and does its’ sickening best to be as gross and outrageous as possible.
Take the superhero storyline, transform your hero into an underpants and blanket wearing kid. Then have him battle lots of strange and gross monsters. You’ve got yourself Captain Underpants–a perennial favorite at the library. Or say you have a yen for a more traditional fantasy setting with knights and quests and so forth. Meet Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger by Kevin Bolger . Maybe you prefer science fiction and aliens? Have a look at the picture book Aliens Love Underpants by Claire Freedman.
These are simply the tip of the iceberg in uproarious bathroom-humor hijinks. They’re published regularly and gleefully snapped up by boys and girls who just know they’re reading something that their parents will loathe. Let’s face it, most of us outgrow bathroom humor pretty quickly. That’s not to say these types of stories aren’t worth having, but most adults are probably going to find these stories unreadable or painful to try and read.
Of course, if you’re an adult and still find this funny, then you’ve got a fine opportunity to find a career in writing these kinds of books!
Fractured Fairytales, Reimagined Romps
Another type of humor is found when an author takes fairy tale tropes or familiar stories and creates a hilarious retelling. Now not every fractured fairytale is humorous, but the ones that are usually go out of their way to poke fun at the expected storyline. The Wide-Awake Princess by E.D. Baker is a version of Sleeping Beauty where Beauty’s sister, Annie is immune to magic, and thus doesn’t fall asleep. She decides it’s up to her to rescue everyone and goes off to have some hilariously non traditional adventures.
This type of humor often relies the reader’s familiarity with the original stories. For instance The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom by Christopher Healy opens with several princely characters after the main fairy tale they star in. If the reader is unfamiliar with the basics of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel they might not follow all the jokes within the text. The author takes particular fun reinventing these colorful characters. (Ella is done with domesticity and wants adventure, Briar Rose is a completely nasty spoiled brat, etc.)
This kind of humor doesn’t just work with fairy tales, either. This type can include humorous takes on any literary or media story line. The trick is the humor works best when you understand the original. Stories like Wonkenstein (The Creature from the my Closet) by Obert Skye is best enjoyed if the readers know of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Frankenstein. Expectations are turned sideways and upsidedown and sometimes diagonal. And while kids can read the new graphic novel Star Wars: Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown as a boarding school story in space, all the in-jokes and movie references that lend the humor to the text are muted without knowing the source material.
Wild and Crazy Characters
Sometime we can find the humor residing in the introduction of a singular character. The setting itself is staid and calm, the people in it fairly ordinary (or at least ordinary-ish). Then along comes someone who challenges all the boundaries. In science fiction and fantasy this can mean doing things beyond the scope of reality and rationality, often breaking all the Laws of Physics and sometimes outside any sense of logic.
When the object of the story is humor, these characters can and do tend to turn the world around them on its ear with hilarious results. Think Mary Poppins, Pippi Longstocking, Willy Wonka. . . these characters don’t have to be funny, they simply are funny by dint of how the world around them responds to them. These fantastic, larger than life and outrageous personalities simply do not acknowledge the world as others claim it to be.
Or you could run into the Nac Mac Feegle from Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men. They’ll turn your ordinary life asunder. And steal your sheep and tobacco.
Very often the point of these figures is not just to provoke giggles, but to provoke thought and wry observation. Each of the characters I’ve mentioned above has a satirical role to fulfill, making commentary on the world in which they live. Their very refusal to abide by certain conventions and expectations creates a moment of humor that also acts as an observation of our own society and human nature. The element of magic or fantastic make these characters extraordinary, but it is the way they approach the world with their abilities that provides the humor. Pippi Longstocking could have turned her super strength in to a way of fighting crime and led a life in the shadows after the loss of her mother. Mary Poppins could be a figure of horror, visiting badly behaved children and using her talents to create nightmarish punishments. Willy Wonka could have been an isolated mad scientist bent on control of the world’s children. It’s not the gifts they have, but how they see the world and use their gifts that changes the tone.
Although admit it, a Pippi Longstocking superhero might not be a bad idea . . .
It’s A Mad Mad World!
Sometimes the humor doesn’t come from a singular character, but from the nature of the world and the events that happen within it. Arriman the Awful, a dark wizard of the North, believes he must get married. So a sorcery competition is held to gain him a wife of suitable dark powers. Tradition, humor and magic collide in Which Witch?_ by Evan Ibbotson. The world that these characters live in is their “normal” setting, but readers can recognize how outlandish and funny it is. Ibbotson has plenty of wild worlds of magic for her characters to explore, but she’s not the only one. Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories From Wayside School have been called “odd”, “goofy” and “surreal”. They take a familiar setting–school–and turn it, literally sideways.
Or . . . you could have a story that’s a bizarre series of events. Usually those events grow bigger and crazier as the story continues. A Whole Nother Story by Cuthbert Soup features a quirky family on the run from a whole host of strange characters. All these bizarre individuals and creatures are after the family and their invention–a time machine. Another great caper is Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger. The fantasy elements are limited to an evil mustache that is capable of mind control–but that’s quite enough to get the hilarity rolling. For mind-controlled flash-mobs, zucchini crayons, and sentient furniture look no further than What We Found in the Sofa and How it Saved The World by Henry Clark. To be honest, these kinds of stories rely upon a huge suspension of disbelief as well as the right sense of humor in order to work for the reader.
Readers who prefer their fantasy and science fiction to make sense and abide by specific rules may find it hard to set aside those preferences in order to enjoy the romp.
Laughter in the Margins
Not every book is going to be a laugh-fest, but that doesn’t make it humorless. In fact, I’m of the opinion that most stories require a little laughter to avoid becoming to weighty and full of themselves. Part of what makes Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series so appealing to kids is that despite epic fights with monsters, dangerous quests and the fate of the world at stake, Percy is still a kid. He still says dumb things and silly things. He doesn’t lose all his humor simply because he’s a demigod. Riordan knows how to play this to his advantage. Humor can break up the tension and allow both the characters (and the readers) to breathe a little and remind themselves that despite the big things going on, they’re still a bunch of kids.
Think about your favorite books . . . even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of comic fantasy or science fiction. My family is currently reading aloud The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s great revisiting a childhood classic, but hearing it again I’m a bit surprised. While I always think of Alice in Wonderland as the book with wry and witty observations, Baum also had his share of witty moments and satirical commentary. How about Charlotte’s Web? Most readers will remember the sad or the heart warming moments, but there are instances of silliness and humor in the text as well. A book without any humor at all runs the risk of having less than three dimensional characters and taking itself way too seriously.
The Last Laugh
As with any other genre or subgenre, stories focused on humor will not be every readers cup of tea–and that’s fine. But I do think it fair to point out that writing humor is no easy task. I’m in awe of the ability to write satirical and absurd plot lines that delight the young readers at my library and have them coming back for more and more. It can be harder to write something funny than it is to write cut and dried dramatic moment.
So my message for those of you out there doing all this marvelous, funny writing, keep up the good work.
Make Em Laugh ^_^
Posted on August 2, 2013, in General Posts and tagged Books, Children's Books, Children's Literature, fantasy, Genres, Humor, Middle-Grade Fiction, Picture Books, Reading, Science Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.