From the beginning, my kids liked funny. Funny movies, funny jokes (at least, funny to someone their age), and funny books. The first books my oldest son would sit still for were the ridiculous rhymes of Dr. Seuss. And today, even though they’re both in their teens, my kids turn to the comics page first in the newspaper, and always leave a few collections of Pearls Before Swine or Dilbert for long trips.
Oh course, my kids aren’t the only ones. And yet humor book authors have always been the Rodney Dangerfields of the children’s book genre. As Leonard Marcus, children’s book maven and author of the new volume Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy, notes, even a well-loved author like Beverly Cleary (author of the Ralph S. Mouse books) didn’t get noticed by the bigwigs of kidlit until 1984′s Dear Mr. Henshaw, which featured a child of divorce.
“[That’s what it took] to get the attention of the Newberry Committee,” Marcus says.
The good news is that Marcus thinks the current generation of kidlit gatekeepers is different. Today reading experts embrace the idea that a funny children’s book can entice so-called “reluctant readers” to pick up a volume on their own. Marcus has written about children’s books for over 20 years in publications like Parenting and The New York Times Book Review. He’s worked on exhibits featuring children’s book illustration at the Eric Carle Museum, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and others. Among his earlier books of interviews with children’s book authors is the 2006 The Wand in the Word: Conversations with Writers of Fantasy, in which he spoke with GeekDad favorites Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman.
Funny Business includes interviews with Dick King-Smith (Babe: The Gallant Pig), Judy Blume (the Fudge books), and Louis Sachar (Holes). Marcus says he tries to draw out the authors as people, not just artists and writers. He believes kids can learn a lot from hearing that even their favorite authors started out not knowing what they wanted to do, and had to find their way by chance.
“[It reminds me of] my uncle’s advice to me, ‘Find a living that’s also a life,'” he says.
GeekDad spoke to Marcus recently from Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, illustrator Amy Schwartz, and their son Jacob, 17.
GeekDad: How do you approach children’s books — as an adult fan, as a scholar or critic, as a parent, as an educator, or from a business angle?
Leonard Marcus: I have aspects of all these. I have very vivid and strong memories of my childhood. I remember my first day of kindergarten. I think those who get involved in this field have that ability. My hunch is the best credential [for becoming a children’s book author] is someone who remembers being a child. I don’t think everybody does.
Becoming a parent did change the range of books that I would consider worthwhile, especially as a reviewer. My son liked all kinds of things that would not win any prizes, like the Berenstain Bears and Richard Scarry. That really interested me as an observer. I came to appreciate them much more. It was too easy to dismiss those kinds of books on aesthetic grounds.
GD: What role does humor play in the world of children’s books?
LM: It’s one of the most inviting qualities from the point of view of a child reader. They want to read funny books more than any other kind — especially kids who don’t think of themselves as readers.
Humor is a useful tool for life. Good books show that. It can help you get out of an argument, or help introduce you to a friend. [Humorous books provide] all kinds of examples of behavior children can benefit from as well as be entertained by.
One major theme is getting through life as an outsider. Children are identified with characters who are not yet fully formed. Humor is great a mitigating influence. It’s major force that strengthens you. It’s also a lot of fun. It’s not necessary to separate the idea of enjoyment from the idea of reading and learning
GD: Do kids relate to humorous books differently than other types of children’s books?
LM: It’s possible children will be put off [by a book’s humor]. But assuming they do enjoy what’s going on, it relaxes them, brings them a step closer to the author. A joke enjoyed is a joke shared. It connects children as “people in the making” with adults, and demystifies life in a very healthy way.
One idea I wanted to put across is that writers go through the same experiences as children working in school. They don’t always get ideas. They make mistakes and have to change things. [Readers can see this in Marcus’ book, which reproduces authors’ actual corrected draft pages.] It’s not that different from what writers are going through. It’s a good model for kids.
GD: You and Jon Scieszka (author of The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales) recently gave a talk about what makes kids laugh. What did you come up with?
LM: He taught second grade. Kids that age have a very solid idea about life. At that point, some kids decide, they have all this [experience and ability with language] inside them, and they can play with it. At every stage of a child’s life, they can play with humor and tie in with humor.
GD: Is humor used differently with different age readers (for example, young children versus teens? If so, why?
LM: Humor evolves with a child’s knowledge of the world. They start out at home with their parents. Then at 3 or 4 or 5, they’re thrust into the world of their peers. [As they get older,] they start to know history. Terry Pratchett writes about alternate realities for teens, because they’re old enough to ask “what if?” Teens feel stuck in every reality.
At age one and a half, they’re just learning words. Point to a dog and say cat, they think that’s hilarious. What that shows is how basic humor is to life. It’s not something to be tamped down and discouraged. It’s a very healthy impulse.
In Western culture, there is a tendency to downplay humor. [It can be traced back to] America’s Puritan past. I think that’s wrong. There’s an outdated commitment to grave attitudes to life.
GD: Do adult gatekeepers (meaning people like librarians, teachers, publishers, booksellers, parents, academics) view humorous books differently than other children’s book literature?
LM: The current generation of librarians is more open to humor than 30 years ago. Beverly Cleary began publishing in the 1950s, but she didn’t win an award until the 80s, with a book about divorce. [That’s what it took] to get the attention of the Newberry Committee. That’s pretty typical.
Humor [can be] a way of pressing other people’s buttons. Librarians [once] tended to be about being quiet. They wouldn’t want someone laughing their heads off. I think as ideas of progressive education [have taken hold], there’s been more awareness that play and learning go together. They’re not enemies.
Also, as reading became more marginal, librarians began to realize that funny books are gateways to literacy. In Sweden, teachers thought Pippi Longstocking was a dangerous book. She doesn’t go to school, and she lives in a fantasy world. But then they saw all the children reading it.
Today there is Lemony Snicket (author of A Series of Unfortunate Events) and Captain Underpants. [In the old days,] a book with the word “underpants” in the title wouldn’t make it through.
GD: Who is your book for?
LM: I tried very hard to make this book for both audiences, adults and kids. I recently gave a talk about the book to kids in fifth through seventh grades. They’re very interested in this stuff. They have to write all the time. Plus they love some of these writers. They like knowing what it was like when they were their age.
For teachers, it’s good to know that some successful authors read comic books.
GD: What are some humorous books you’d recommend to kids?
LM: Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad Trilogy, including his book Truckers, is about gnomes in outer space, who end up in a department store and think it is the entire world.
Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth is iconic, the Alice in Wonderland of the twentieth century.
William Steig’s books touch on life and death, but they’re funny at the same time. Doctor De Soto [about a mouse dentist who has to treat a hungry fox with a sore tooth] is a surreal situation told with a lot of wit.
James Marshall — just about everything he touched was very, very funny, but very wise. The George and Martha books are about getting along with peers, but you never feel you’re being taught a lesson.
It would be interesting if someone just did a “funny shelf.” It would be the most popular shelf in the library.