One of the most stressful questions I’ve been asked by kids is, “are your books funny?” This is a test disguised as a question. If I get it wrong, they won’t read my books. But what is an appropriate response to such a question? Yes, sometimes, depends on your sense of humour? If I say yes, does that mean the reader expects to be constantly giggling or cracking up at least once a page? How funny does a book have to be to be considered ‘comedic?’ I once overheard a reader describe my novel Love is a Four-Letter Word to another kid as, “funny, but not ha-ha funny.” This assessment still haunts me.
This past April, I participated in the Funny Pages Book Festival, a wonderful literary festival that aims to make kids across Nova Scotia fall in love with reading by featuring funny books and authors. The festival’s mandate grew out of the understanding that not every kid loves to read, but every kid loves to laugh. Simple, brilliant, and totally true. The kids had a great time and left buzzing with excitement, arms full of books. And yet funny books do not receive the same award or media attention that more serious books do, and I’m willing to bet this is true when it comes to what kind of books receive grants in this country.
Tackling difficult issues in an authentic, age-appropriate manner is certainly a skill and worthy of praise, but it reinforces the idea that the highest purpose of a children’s book is to educate. I would argue that for kids, it’s more important to entertain first, educate second. There has never been more media competing for kids’ time and attention. If we want kids to grow into lifelong readers, we should emphasize the fun of reading and tone down the ‘it’s good for you’ messaging, especially in a world of shrinking attention spans and increasingly flashy forms of content. This includes publishing, promoting, and rewarding funny books as much as possible.
Lots of people (comedians especially) love to repeat the adage that ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard.’ It’s not difficult to agree on what is sad—death, heartbreak, betrayal, injustice—but what people find funny is a lot more nuanced. Comedy is almost always qualified: romantic comedy, dark comedy, situational comedy, dramedy. Comedies are described as broad, slapstick, bawdy, or zany. The range of what people find funny is just as large as the variety of books published. There is no such thing as a straight-up comedy, and you won’t find a ‘comedy’ shelf in bookstores. That’s because comedy is an ingredient, not a genre.
These days, I tell kids that I use humour in all my books, even the more dramatic ones. After describing the plot of Words That Start With B – a middle grade novel that chronicles the grade seven year of two friends dealing with bullying and the illness of a parent—I tell the kids, “I know this sounds like the most depressing book ever, but most of it is funny.” I explain how even on your worst day, you probably smiled or laughed at least once, even if you actively sought out a meme or video to make you do so. Humour can alleviate pain. Laughter, like crying, is a release. Comedy is my favourite ingredient—like salt, it can be used to bring out the flavour in savory or even the sweetest creations. Don’t be afraid to get salty, friends! Kids will thank you and the future of reading depends on it.
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Vikki VanSickle is the author of a number of acclaimed novels for children including P.S. Tell No One, Words That Start With B, Summer Days, Starry Nights, and the 2018 Red Maple award-winning The Winnowing. She has also written the picture books If I Had a Gryphon, Teddy Bear of the Year, and Anonymouse. Vikki started her career as an independent bookseller and spent 12 years working in children's publishing. A devoted member of the Canadian children's book world, she curates and presents regular book segments at CTV Your Morning and balances her writing with arts education for all ages.