According to Roald Dahl, humour is the key to being an effective children’s writer. And he was probably right if the ever-increasing sale of humorous books is any indication of the direction in which children’s publishing is headed. But while children love a good laugh, how exactly does a children’s author go about injecting humour into a book? What is it that will make the young reader break into peals of laughter – a funny rhyme, a slapstick situation or an irreverent joke? While there are no definitive answers, here are some observations to guide writers along the way.
Children, especially very young children, love concrete humour which is not too sophisticated or complex. One of the well-loved children’s books, "Where Can an Elephant Hide?” by David McPhail, is an excellent example of this comic genre. The story depicts an elephant who is trying to save himself from two approaching hunters by disguising himself as various jungle animals. He mimics a tiger, a monkey and even a parrot to escape detection! The physical humour involved in the elephant’s escapades makes it a winner for the preschoolers. However, physical humour works for older children as well- “Captain Underpants” being a good example of this. Aliens, blubber, slippery bananas… the bizarre and the weird always works in children’s literature! A children’s writer needs to let her own imagination loose, in order to capture that of the audience.
Think of quirky wordplay and you inevitably think of Dr.Seuss. Nobody was better at tweaking the language than he did it simply because “I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells.” And the young readers who continue to read about “fox in sox” and “the WHO's” and “the Grinch” agree wholeheartedly. Whimsical rhymes are the best but any rhyme is awesome; and exactly how do you go about getting it done?
Most important thing to remember when working on a story in rhyme is to remain focused on the story. A writer needs to remember that the plot is of utmost importance and obsession with rhyme should not divert from the story. When stuck for inspiration mid-rhyme, reach for the masters of rhyme and read, read, read. Rhymes of Roald Dahl and Dr.Seuss are likely to get the rhythm back into your writing and help you move forward.
Dark Humour in children’s literature is more popular than most people realize. A great example is Lemony Snicket who wrote the bestselling cult books “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “All the Wrong Questions” for children. The books are heavily inspired by gothic literature and are undoubtedly funny, if dark. The same can be said of Roald Dahl whose books introduced children to comic situations but also to nasty adults, scary witches and evil in general.
For a writer to get black comedy rights is difficult and to be able to do it well in children’s literature is even more difficult. And this is probably the best reason of all to attempt it! Black comedy allows a children’s writer to broach the more serious issues in a child’s life like divorce, death and violence and throw some light on them in a way that the child can cope with it. In the above mentioned “unfortunate series” for example, three orphans flee their evil guardian who is hell-bent on stealing their inheritance. Even while following their misadventures, the super-dramatic and outsize scenarios help the young reader cope with the tragedies that dog the three children. And it helps that in all the books (as also in Roald Dahl books), the children always conquer evil and save the day.
So, if you are a writer plotting your next children’s book, maybe you should try adding some humour to the narrative. Who knows, you may end up laughing all the way to the bank!! Let’s make some illustrations.