Writer in Residence

Humour and Children’s Books

By Naseem Hrab

I don’t think I was raised in a particularly funny family. 

My dad was often described as being extremely intelligent, but I don’t think I ever heard someone call him funny.

Growing up, I recognized that my mom loved watching funny television shows and movies, but I never really saw her as a funny person. Now, as an adult, I see the way she interacts with her grandchildren and I’ve realized she’s basically just trying to make us laugh all the time. She’s incredibly playful, a performer. But I’m still not sure if I’d describe her as funny. Hahaha.

One of my uncles, Uncle John (my dad’s brother), was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. He was so funny that he would often laugh at his own jokes before they tumbled out of his mouth. That’s my favourite kind of funny. And in his 80s, he told me one of the funniest dirty jokes I’ve ever heard.

My brother Roy makes me laugh all the time, and we’re basically in constant competition about who has a better sense of humour. I think Uncle John and Night Court inspired us. I watched A LOT of Night Court when I was eight. And my brother Neil can be funny, but I always associate him with being really, really smart and, like, reading really, really long books. I would never describe myself as funny (who has that kind of confidence?), but I definitely love all things funny. I know that my sense of humour is 100 percent a coping mechanism—it really comes out when I’m anxious, bored, tense, etc. It’s reactive!

My friend Chip once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Anyone who describes themselves as ‘funny’ in their online dating profile is definitely not funny. If you’re funny, you just say funny things.” I love this observation so much. Don’t say you’re funny … just be funny!

So, how does all of this relate to writing for children? I’m not entirely sure to be honest, but I wanted to make a case for saying that humour is all relative (PUN INTENDED?!). I feel like people try too hard to be funny and don’t try hard enough to be funny at the same time in children’s books. A lot of writers try to pander to children. Instead of pushing themselves to really come up with an original joke, they try to appeal to the lowest common denominator (potty humour). And while I don’t think anything is inherently wrong with potty humour (I love it!)—I think that we need to push ourselves to do something NEW with these types of jokes. A lot of writers underestimate children’s sense of humour and don’t make jokes that are irreverent or meta or, well, modern. And if there’s one thing we know for sure about how humour works, it’s that it evolves.

When I was a kid, I remember reading an Amelia Bedelia book for the first time and literally feeling my brain expand. AMELIA BEDELIA CUT UP A REAL SPONGE AND PUT IT IN CAKE TO MAKE A SPONGE CAKE??? OMG. MIND. BLOWN. One of my favourite stand-up comedians, W. Kamau Bell, wrote a whole article about how he thinks that the children’s show Doc McStuffins is one of the best shows on television, and one of the reasons he thinks the show is so great is because “some of the characters now occasionally seem aware of the show’s conceits (the songs, the magic stethoscope). Which means [his] kids will appreciate meta-humor years before [he] did.”

This is all to say, while I can’t tell you how to write a joke that will appeal to kids, I encourage you to really push yourself to be original when you’re finding your humour in your writing for kids. Don’t pander, don’t underestimate kids. Don’t accept the first joke you write, or the second one. But maybe the third one will make a kid’s brain literally expand.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Naseem Hrab is a writer, a storyteller and a pretty good friend. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Naseem worked as a librarian for a time and now works in children's publishing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.