Notes From a Children's Librarian: Funny Books for Young Readers

Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.

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A ten-year-old’s question: “Where are the funny books?” made me think. In a sea of junior novels, what are the telltale signs? A jacket quote? A comical cover illustration? A title with whimsy? Beyond that, how does an author make writing humorous?

Each of these books has its own form of “funny.”

Alice, I Think, written by Susan Juby, is a perfect example of comedic voice, and it's written in diary form. Alice, a 15-year-old home-schooled isolate, is finally attending high school. But her retro fashion sense makes her a bully magnet. The reader cringes at her Italian housedress, nurse shoes, accessorized by a Fred Flintstone lunch box. Besides a few beatings (one done by the bully, another done to the bully, by Alice’s mother) not much happens in this book. There’s the druggie cousin Frank who comes to live with them. And the co-dependent boyfriend whom her parents (and the reader) know is a loser. But we have to wait while Alice makes her own decisions. When she finally meets a boy (a male version of Alice) there’s an amusing sex scene suitable for ages 12 and up.

Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates

For grades 5 and 6, Sean Cullen’s Hamish Trilogy incorporates laughs at every level. You don’t want to skip a sentence here, for fear you’ll miss Cullen’s nutty wit. His descriptions are filmic. The book starts with a “Note from the Narrator” establishing the author as a character. Cullen butts in often. And as readers we want him to. For example: “Fortunately Mimi remembered she’d picked up a sharp stone in the last chapter.” He also appears in the footnotes, which include creative etymological explanations, kind of like Balderdash on steroids.

Cullen’s skill is in surprise, unexpected twists in plot, and in the character development of three child orphans: Mimi, whose mom was killed in a run-in with some tapirs, Parveen, a MacGyver-type inventor, and the mysterious Hamish X, expert orphanage escapee whose superpowers are in his boots (which never come off).  Cullen isn’t afraid to let pirates be killed by the sword or to hint at romance. This one is a good example of authorial voice and how to play with form, and Cullen doesn’t dumb down the vocabulary. There are just the right amount of secrets and an ending that leads into the sequel.

Newton and the Giant

Michael McGowan’s Newton and the Giant also has a theme of neglectful parents and bullies. In this case, the bullies are Newton’s older quadruplet brothers. Newton escapes their wrath through an attic portal and meets Herbert, a friendly giant who can “intimidate the hubcaps off a race car.” Newton decides to help Herbert save his people and win his sweetheart (who’s about to consummate her marriage to another giant with a lick of her wart-infested toes), in return for a favour: help him stand up to his brothers.

The jocularity is in the descriptions, the snappy dialogue and the characters, such as Witch Hazel, whose key potion ingredient is a large booger from her nose. There’s also Grandmother Rose, a naked giant with “more folds than origami,” and Commander Joe, a tiny toy figure who Newton can now hear, thanks to his newly reinstated imagination. Newton’s also an inventor, using his flying machine to travel deep into Newton’s land where he realizes he has what it takes to deal with his brothers. Appropriate for grades 4 to 6, and a great read-aloud for grades 2 or 3.

The Nose from Jupiter

Richard Scrimger’s The Nose from Jupiter begins with ten-year-old Alan in the hospital, not knowing how he got there. The back-story reveals he’s dealing with several issues: bullies, soccer ineptitude, a first crush, separating parents who neglect him. But, with help from Norbert, the alien who inhabits his nose, Alan learns to speak up for himself. (Norbert leaves him in the finale to occupy KD Lang’s nose, which is in greater need of help.)

A Nose for Adventure

In the next book in the series, A Nose for Adventure, Alan’s dad hasn’t picked him up at the airport in New York City. He tags along with Frieda, a wealthy young girl in a wheelchair who quickly gets kidnapped (along with Alan). This story is a bit of a wild ride, addressing some of the obstacles faced by the disabled. Both are entertaining read-alouds for grades 3 (reading level grade 4 or 5). There are two more books in the series.

This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall is the book that launched Gordon Korman’s career when he was in 7th grade, making him a hero in any kid-writer’s eyes. Best friends, 14-year-old Bruno and Boots, are banned from rooming together in the dorm. Each tries to torment his new bunkmate in this prank-driven plot. Bruno taunts his wealthy hypochondriac bedfellow and Boots liberates his science nerd roomie’s ant farm. The boys find themselves in and out of trouble with a redemptive climax involving a hot air balloon crash and some bank robbers. Suitable for grades 4 to 6. There are six more titles in the Macdonald Hall series.

Why Did the Underwear Cross the Road

The slapstick feel of Why did the Underwear Cross the Road?, also by Korman, makes for a gratifying read-aloud for grades 1 and 2 (grade 3 reading level). Justin, an Idea Man, along with his two buddies, set out to win the “Good Deeds contest.” They begin by helping an old lady cross the road who doesn’t need assistance. There’s a tug of war mid-crossing, and a “blizzard of underwear” from her split-open suitcase (which comes back to haunt them in the final scene.) A stakeout of a suspected car thief lands the threesome in some not-good deeds: a dog falls in wet cement, kindergarteners are zealously over-trained for a play day competition, and a window-washing attempt turns into a living room flood. 

So can you judge a book by its funny cover? Definitely. Each of these books delivered with its own brand of humour.

April 20, 2014
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