Sunday, April 5, 2009

Key themes in children’s literature: Humour

Humour is an important part of life. People need to laugh. Laughter reduces tensions helps us to relate to one another, releases tension. But while we can all recognise humour when we see it or experience it, it’s tricky to define. One simply definition that I like from WordNet is “the quality of being funny”.

Then there is the more complex definition from Wikipedia which I also like “the ability or quality of people, objects or situations to invoke feelings of amusement in other people

It’s obvious that people enjoy humour. At a very early age children demonstrate just how much they enjoy being made to laugh. In the first few months of life babies will respond with smiles, giggles and laughter to unusual noises, funny faces, even a simple smile, a raspberry kiss or a tickle. In fact, for the first 9 months of life laughter is generally stimulated by physical tickling, surprising situations, funny noises or voices, funny faces, or the unexpected. By two years many children begin to laugh in response to songs, stories, make believe, storytelling, dramatic actions and slapstick routines. All my grandchildren have seen it as riotous when I turn my back while pushing them on the upswing, to be struck by their feet on the return downswing and go hurtling to the ground (well practised!). “Turn around again Grandad!

But there is always a fine line for children between being amused and being scared. That's why parents need to look carefully at some books that focus on humour; some are dark and scary and perhaps not helpful for young children still working out the difference between fantasy and reality. It is only as children grow in language proficiency that words begin to be a source of amusement and their sense of humour grows. From the age of five children begin to enjoy word play much more, to enjoy cartoons, and to grasp the beginnings of satire. It takes many children up to their 10th to 12th years to develop a more complete sense of humour.

However, humour and laughter are more than just an enjoyable part of life, it would seem from research that humour has some positive physical, emotional and relational consequences. As a result, it is increasingly used in therapeutic situations. Research has shown that humour “…has the power to motivate, alleviate stress and pain, and improve one’s sense of well being” (read more here). Educators have also found that humour can be motivating, especially for boys. In fact for some boys, at times it seems to be the only thing that works.

The benefits of humour for literacy

Humour has enormous positive benefits for early literacy learning. It helps children to engage with stories and the language that is used to create stories. This in turn helps them to listen to story reading longer, and to want to read books for themselves. This is particularly the case with boys. Boys seem to remain fixated on slapstick comedy, enjoy the unexpected and gross more than girls, and for a longer period of time. As well, the humour is usually more effective in books when it is more than just cleverness with words; illustrations can support clever word use in cartoons, rhyme and verse. Ultimately, the best examples of humour for children rely on brilliant use of language to create the absurd, the surprising, the unexpected and the outrageous. In the rest of this post I thought I’d share a few examples of books that children find amusing and motivating. It is not meant to be comprehensive so I'd welcome your examples via the comments.

Stories that rely on word play, rhyme and the unexpected

There are many children's stories that rely on humour. It is hard to go past Dr Seuss in this category. His books all use simple language and illustrations used in surprising ways. He set the pattern with his first book ‘And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street’. This is the story of a young boy named Marco who while walking down the street runs into a horse and cart that suddenly appears to take on some special qualities; it becomes a chariot pulled by a zebra, then a reindeer takes over, followed by a sled pulled by an elephant etc. The images have what became the characteristic Seuss colour, sharp lines and simplicity of language and structure. Language that is rich, repetitive and rhythmic. What child wouldn’t be amused by the thought of having duck feet, a whale spout or an elephant trunk? I did a full author focus on Seuss in an earlier post (here).

But Dr Seuss isn’t alone; there are other accomplished writers who have mastered this type of humour.

The absurd tale - more conventional stories that use novel storylines and characterisation to amuse

Older children begin to enjoy books that go a step further than Dr Seuss and create rich narratives that once again use the novel, the absurd and the unexpected to amuse. Some of my favourites include:

'Flat Stanley' by Jeffrey Brown - In this story Stanley is flattened one night by a large bulletin board that falls on him while he’s asleep. Much to his families surprise he survives and they discover that there are advantages to being flat, including being able to go under doors, flying like a kite and being able to go on holidays via the postal service.

The Shrinking of Treehorn” by Florence Parry Heide – Tells of a child who realises one day that he is shrinking. Treehorn is unable to get his family and his teacher to take notice of him when he suggests that he is shrinking, “Nonsense Treehorn, no-one shrinks”. ‘Well I am” said Treehorn.

Mr Popper’s Penguins' by Richard Atwater – After writing a letter to Admiral Drake at the South Pole, Mr. Popper receives a surprise that changes life for his entire family.

Penny Pollard’s Diary’ (1983) written by Robin Klein and illustrated by Anne James - Not strictly a narrative but a diary or journal in narrative form. This wonderful story about a girl who loves horses but hates 'girly' things', old people and school work, tells how she is changed by meeting a feisty 81 year-old woman named Mrs Bettany. The book was 'Highly Commended' in the Children's Book Council Awards in 1984 and was one of many awards won by Klein. This was followed later with 'Hating Alison Ashley' (1984) that was also produced as a stage play and a film starring Delta Goodrem. All of Klein's books have special appeal for girls but boys also enjoy them.

Roald Dahl is perhaps the master of the absurd tale. His many books almost all use this approach to draw the reader in and amuse them with outrageous storylines, unusual characters and events that are atypical of those they’d meet in daily life. His many classics include 'Charlie and Chocolate Factory', 'Boy', 'Fantastic Mr Fox', 'Matilda' and ‘The Twits’. The official Roald Dahl website contains details on all his books plus much more (here).

In Australia Paul Jennings has also shown mastery of the deceptively difficult job of being outrageously funny. Like Dahl, Jennings writings have always been a bit on the edge and hence he has sometimes been criticised for being so. But his books have opened up the joys of reading to countless boys who had not previously read. His recipe is simple. Give them short, fast moving funny stories that surprise and entertain. His early series of collections of short stories did just this and books like 'Unreal', 'Unbearable', 'Unbelievable', 'Uncovered', 'Undone', 'Tongue-tied' were page turners that kept boys interested. His 'Wicked' series written in partnership with Morris Gleitzman went one step further and provided a related series of six short books. Paul Jennings website has a complete list of his work (here).

For older readers (13 and up) the Lemony Snicket books will be of interest. Lemony Snicket is a pseudonym used by Daniel Handler in his books which include ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’, ‘Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography with an introduction from Handler’ and one of my favourites and ‘The Lump of Coal’. The author's introduction gives a hint of the Snicket style, he says of the book:

'This is a story about a lump of coal who can think, talk, and move itself around. Is there a more charming holiday tale to behold? Probably, but Lemony Snicket has not written one.’

A Series of Unfortunate Events’ was where Handler’s writing for children began. It is a series of 13 (!) books about the adventures of three children, the Baudelaires, who are orphaned after the death of their parents in a fire. The setting of the series like the rest of the events of the 13 books is surprising, and Handler includes many literary and cultural links and asides, clearly amusing himself along the way. A film adaptation of the first three books in the series was released in 2004, as Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. There is also a video game adaptation of the same name. Audio books have also been released complete with songs from the books, featuring The Gothic Archies. Some parents will find these books a little dark - amusing 'horror' for kids! Frankly, I find them just too dark and scary. However, older boys (in particular) love them. I wouldn’t give them to my children until at least 13+ years of age, although a couple of Snicket's books would suit younger readers (e.g. 'The Lump of Coal').

I also love his most recent effort ‘The Composer is Dead’. A murder has been committed in the symphony hall, and the culprit is lurking in the orchestra. This is a bit like a Peter and the Wolf for the 21st century. It comes with a CD featuring narration by Lemony Snicket and original music performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. It has spurned a number of performances by Snicket with the San Francisco Orchestra (here). In the words of Snicket "I like to think of it (the book) as a gateway drug that will lead to a lifetime addiction to classical music". You can view a video excerpt below.

Funny rhymes, verse, songs and jokes

Even before many children become readers they have experienced the fun of jokes, rhymes song and verse. In Australia June Factor wrote a wonderful series of books to capture some of the best playground verse. With titles like 'Far out Brussel Sprout' and 'Unreal Banana Peel' you should get the idea (click here). Such playground rhymes and chants that tried , most of which is very funny but often it was devised with social comment in mind, and passed on knowledge and cultural understanding (plus some bigotry and racism at times). There are many examples around the world of such collections. Children love them.

Writers who exploit a combination of verse, story, rhyme and illustration include Richard Scary (1919-1994) who is a stand out. His books are timeless (click here). This American author and illustrator published over 300 books with sales of over 300 million. His most famous series of books was ‘Busytown’. Scary's main characters are mostly anthropomorphic animals. Busytown is no exception. It is inhabited by an assortment of unusual animals. The main characters include Huckle Cat, Lowly Worm, Mr Frumble, police Sergeant Murphy, Mr Fixit, Bananas Gorilla, Hilda Hippo, and Farmer Fox. Scary’s books have been translated into 30 languages but the illustrations alone can be ‘read’ and enjoyed by children irrespective of language barriers.

Scary’s many books have also been featured in videos, games and other merchandise. One of my favourites is the Busytown video which all my grandchildren have loved from a very early age (2 years and up).

You can view a video introduction below.

Many children’s authors also include verse, song and rhyme as part of their books. One of the best is Roald Dahl. All his books are filled with examples. I was excited to find recently a collection of many of these songs and poems published in a collection since Dahl’s death (1916-1990). The book is simply called 'Roald Dahl Songs and Verse' and is published by Puffin. It is beautifully illustrated by Quentin Blake who did many of Dahl’s books and contains 190 of our favourite examples from his books. These include ‘Concerning Violet Beauregarde’ from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, ‘The Anteater’ from ‘Dirty Beasts’ and many more, including five previously unpublished examples.

Joke books also have their place and reinforce for young children that you can pick up a book for a few minutes just for the joy and fun of it. Some of these books tend to emphasise the ‘gross’ side of humour (for example), but others offer a more balanced approach. Either way, kids will enjoy them. You can even buy sets of jokes contributed by children. One example, ‘501 Great Aussie Jokes’ is published by Camp Quality in Australia also helps to support their important work in supporting children with cancer and their parents.

Summing up

Children love fun and laughter, the surprising, the unexpected and the outrageous. But rhymes, jokes, verse and songs are more than just enjoyable, they teach about language and demonstrate the wonder of word play. This is surely one of the foundations of good writing and is a great way to encourage children to become avid readers.

Related links

All my 'Key themes in children's literature' posts (here)

1 comment:

Prue said...

Spike Milligan's stuff is great for absurd humour too.