Kids love to laugh. Everyone knows that. So, how hard can it be to bash out a book that makes kids’ giggle? As an author of funny (I hope) books for under 12s I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me they have a formula for writing a bestselling children’s book. It usually goes something like this –
burping + bogeys + poo + underpants = instant hit.
I’ll confess, each of those four elements has popped up at least once in my books. But until you sit down and try and write for this age group it’s hard to grasp how tricky it can be to keep it funny, no matter how many times you mention wind, snot and bodily functions.
I know I’m biased, but I’d say it’s often harder to write comedy than to write ‘straight’. As Dara O’Briain said, when judging the (sadly-now-extinct) Roald Dahl Funny Prize: “You can’t pad funny. It’s tough to maintain the hit rate.” This may be why a lot of successful funny kids’ authors – like David Walliams, Danny Wallace, David Baddiel, Louise Rennison and Jonathan Meres – had previous lives as stand-up comedians. It’s a great way to hone your ability to keep the laughter coming.
As well as having the odd attempt at stand-up comedy (I’m rubbish), I’m also an ex-teacher (bit rubbish at that too) and have two kids myself. So there are always small human guinea pigs on tap for me to test scenes and words and phrases on. Kids are good at making their feelings known – they may love to laugh but they also love to stare, pityingly, at would-be-funny adults when you get it wrong.
Through the combination of giggles and withering stares I’ve received over the years, I picked up a few ideas as to what makes kids giggle most:
1. SLAPSTICK HUMOUR
Kids love to see people embarrassing and/or endangering themselves. The biggest laugh I’ve ever had on a school visit was when I got tangled in the microphone cord and fell off the stage. Authors who can capture this kind of comedy in their writing are on to a winner. For me, the king of madcap capers and slapstick escapades is Jeremy Strong, so if you want to see how it’s done his books are a great place to start.
Great kids’ authors not only have the ability to think like a child, they also have the same capacity for over-excitement and anarchy. By tapping into their own inner lunatic they create a world wherein nonsense reigns. The reason Roald Dahl is still as popular as ever is his skill with the absurd. James (of the Giant Peach fame) has parents who were eaten by an escaped rhino; the boy in The Witches doesn’t mind being turned into a mouse because he knows his shortened lifespan means he’ll live no longer than his grandmother.
3. BIG IDEAS
Some people suggest funny books lack depth and aren’t as thought provoking as more serious books. Nonsense. As the magnificent Terry Pratchett pointed out, it’s a mistake to think funny is the opposite of serious: “The opposite of funny is unfunny: books can be funny and serious.”
Indeed, the best comic novels offer both laughter and tears, with big ideas at their heart. The book that has probably made me laugh most in my life – The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – also contains some of the most profound truths, with quotes like:
“One of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
There’s a reason why studies to discover what children want from books regularly come back with the answer, “books that make them laugh.” Funny books don’t just make reading fun, they can also be clever and thought-provoking and help kids learn a lot about the world around them.
If you’re wondering what funny book to pick up next, here are a few of my favourites, old and new:
About the author:
Rachel Hamilton is a graduate of both Oxford University and Cambridge University and has put her education to good use by working in an ad agency, a secondary school, a building site and a men’s prison. Her interests are books, films, stand-up comedy and cake, and she loves to make people laugh, especially when it’s intentional rather than accidental.
Her books include the Unicorn in New York series (OUP), The Case of the Exploding Brains, and The Case of the Exploding Loo (Simon & Schuster), which was nominated for the Redbridge Children’s Award, Leeds Book Award, and won the Worcestershire Awesomest Book Award and the Ossett Riveting Reads Award
She recently won the Emirates Woman of the Year Award 2015 in the Artist Category
So true, Rachel. Writing funny is HARD. And this dismissive attitude of many adults to funny children’s books gets right up my nose. If you want a commentary on 1980s Britain, look no further than The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole age 13 and 3/4 – and you will most likely fall out of bed reading it, because you will be laughing so hard. As an adult, it’s the funny children’s books I love the most – Jennings, Adrian Mole, Georgia Nicolson, the Killer Cat, the Herdmans, Fudge – I go back to them time and again.
Me too, me too, Emma. All my favourite re-reads are the funny ones – Adrian Mole, Good Omens, Hitchhikers Guide and the rest – funny never gets old.