November 17, 2017

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Humor That is Seriously Funny | Focus On

“The guy had come from Earth, which is a particularly well-liked planet around here due to its being one of the few where the inhabitants developed a sense of humor.” –Wendy Mass, Pi in the Sky

Writing about humor is a good way to suck all the fun out of it, so please—feel free to skip straight to the booklist. Or as Platte F. Clarke advises in Bad Unicorn, “I recommend you close the book now and run away—preferably with screaming and arm flailing.” It’s got to be better than having to read about how literary devices like hyperbole (e.g., “screaming and arm flailing”) are examples of figurative language (Common Core State Standard 5.4) that can add to the complexity of a text (CCSS RL 10). Just don’t tell the kids.

We love giving funny books to children because we want them to enjoy reading. When they come back clamoring for more Pseudonymous Bosch, you may smile a satisfied smile. But you—and your old pal the Stinky Cheese Man—may be accomplishing more than you realize. Numerous academic studies conducted over the past decade indicate that there are more advantages to reading humorous literature than pure pleasure. Experiments have shown that the brain’s response to the unexpected—say, the purple dragon in Chloe and the Lion, or the polar bear sidekick in Timmy Failure—is to seek order. College students made to read Kafka performed twice as well on pattern recognition tests as their peers. Broken rules compel our brains to look for functioning ones.

Seems like Dr. Seuss was on to something when he said, “I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells.” If only he’d been grant-funded, he could have said that in an 80-page thesis instead of a nine-word off-the-cuff remark! Set their brains dancing with these recent funny books.

Picture Books with a Kick

AHLBERG, Allan. The Goldilocks Variations. illus. by Jessica Ahlberg. Candlewick. 2012. RTE $17.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-6268-4.
PreS-Gr 3
–The three bears are just the appetizer in this charmingly illustrated pop-up banquet. Goldilocks encounters a family of aliens, talking furniture, and “a grumpy-looking ‘grandma’ in a bed, six or seven other beds, and somebody or something banging away like billy-o at the back door.” By altering individual elements, Ahlberg reinforces the central idea.

BARNETT, Mac. Chloe and the Lion. illus. by Adam Rex. Hyperion/Disney. 2012. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-1-4231-1334-8.
Gr 1-5
–All Chloe wants is a ride on the merry-go-round, but her story is hijacked by a couple of unlikely characters. In a dispute about who’s in charge, the illustrator draws the writer into a gorilla suit, and the writer writes the illustrator into the lion’s belly. Use this book to teach point of view and the collaborative process.

EATON, Maxwell. The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Fishy Business. illus. by author. (The Flying Beaver Brothers Series). Knopf. 2012. RTE $12.99. ISBN 978-0-375-96448-0; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-375-86448-3.
Gr 1-5
–A volcano has appeared overnight on Beaver Island. Oh no, it’s really a smokestack for a fish-stick factory run by duplicitous mackerel! This graphic novel is the second entry in a series that features simple cartoon art and razor-sharp comic timing, with an eco-friendly message.

HODGKINSON, Leigh. Goldilocks and Just One Bear. illus. by author. Candlewick/Nosy Crow. 2012. RTE $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-6172-4.
K-Gr 3
–A bear lost in the city tries out the porridge and the chairs in an empty apartment. When the owner turns out to be an all-grown-up Goldilocks, the two stories, old and new, come together in a comic fanfare. Retro-modern ink and watercolor art adds fun details.

KLASSEN, Jon. This Is Not My Hat. illus. by author. Candlewick. 2012. RTE $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-5599-0.
K-Gr 3
–The narrative tension between text and art is as crystalline as the water at the bottom of the sea is murky in this tale of underwater mischief. The little fish in the stolen hat is absolutely sure he is going to get away with his crime, but attentive children will holler, “Look behind you!”

SCHWARTZ, Corey Rosen. The Three Ninja Pigs. illus. by Dan Santat. Putnam. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-399-25514-4.
K-Gr 3
–These porcine powerhouses are ready to rumble! With their arsenal of martial-arts skills, the Big Bad Wolf doesn’t stand a chance. Except–whoops! Pigs One and Two skipped a few lessons. Rhyming text and dynamic illustrations are a delight, and the glossary of Japanese words invites culture study tie-ins.

WILLEMS, Mo. Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. illus. by author. HarperCollins. 2012. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-06-210418-2.
K-Gr 3
–In this signature retelling, Mama Dinosaur rubs her hands together while saying, “I SURE HOPE NO INNOCENT LITTLE SUCCULENT CHILD HAPPENS BY OUR UNLOCKED HOME WHILE WE ARE… uhhh… SOMEPLACE ELSE!” Children will automatically supply the classic version for comparison.

Funny Transitional Titles

ABBOTT, Tony. The Mysterious Talent Show Mystery. illus. by Colleen Madden. Bk. 4. (Goofballs Series). Egmont USA. 2013. Tr $14.99. ISBN 978-1-60684-167-9; pap. $4.99. ISBN 978-1-60684-400-7.
Gr 2-4
–Readers decipher clues while puns ricochet around the room as two young sleuths investigate strange happenings. Wordplay contributes complexity, while snappy dialogue-driven text keeps those pages turning. This series features short chapters and comic black-and-white drawings.

ADDERSON, Caroline. Jasper John Dooley: Left Behind. illus. by Ben Clanton. Bk. 2. (Jasper John Dooley Series). Kids Can. 2013. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-1-55453-579-8.
Gr 1-3
–Jasper, introduced in Star of the Week (2012), feels a little puncture when his Nan leaves for vacation. And when he accidentally staples his snake story to his stomach, that deflated feeling just gets worse. Jasper’s grownups indulge him a bit, but not too much, in this sweet book about managing feelings.

COX, Judy. The Secret Chicken Society. illus. by Amanda Haley. Holiday House. 2012. Tr $15.95. ISBN 978-0-823-42372-9; pap. $5.99. ISBN 978-0-823-42765-9.
Gr 2-4
–Few animals are as funny as a chicken, but that’s only one of the things Daniel discovers when he adopts five fuzzy chicks. Summery slapstick with a healthy dose of fun facts.

MONTIJO, Rhode. Gum Girl! Chews Your Destiny. illus. by author. Hyperion/Disney. July 2013. Tr $14.99. ISBN 978-1-423-15740-3.
K-Gr 2
–A freak combination of bubble gum and high voltage turns gum-loving Gabby into a sticky, stretchy superhero. A few Spanish words and puns keep the text popping, and artwork in bold geometric shapes gives the book a Powerpuff Girls-meet-Dora energy.

O’RYAN, Ray. Hello, Nebulon! illus. by Jack Colin. Bk. 1. (Galaxy Zack Series). S & S/Little Simon. 2013. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-5387-6; pap. $4.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-5386-9; ebook $4.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-5388-3.
Gr 1-3
–Zack is worried about moving to Nebulon–what if his new teacher has two heads? What if the pizza comes with bugs instead of pepperoni? Cartoony space-age illustrations depict Zack making a new friend, riding a hoverbike, and exploring his jazzy new house. First in a forthcoming series.

Middle-Grade Malarkey

AGUIRRE, Jorge. Giants Beware! illus. by Rafael Rosado. First Second. 2012. pap. $14.99. ISBN 978-1-596-43582-7.
Gr 2-6
–Rambunctious Claudette, the daughter of the town blacksmith, sets off to kill the local giant with her best friend and brother in tow. Action and friendship, drawn in a clear, cheerful style, make this graphic novel a great choice for “Bone” (Scholastic) fans.

BEATY, Andrea. Dorko the Magnificent. Abrams/Amulet. 2013. Tr $16.95. ISBN 978-1-4197-0638-7.
Gr 3-5–Botched magic tricks and an old lady with a specialty in Extreme Crankiness provide slapstick humor as young Robbie practices for his school’s talent show. Readers will root for Robbie, who works hard and remains optimistic despite setbacks.

BOYCE, Frank Cottrell. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again. illus. by Joe Berger. Candlewick. 2012. RTE $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-5957-8; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-6353-7.
Gr 3-6
–To keep Dad busy after he’s been laid off, Mum gets him an old camper van to fix. But when the family visits the junkyard looking for parts, they strike flying, floating automotive gold. An inventive and picturesque family story, as full of heart and humor as the original.

CARMAN, Patrick. Floors. Bk. 1. (Floors Series). Scholastic. 2011. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-0-545-25519-6; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-545-46092-7.
Gr 4-6
–Odd ducks of both the web-footed and human variety alternately help and hinder junior handyman Leo and his pal Remi as Leo attempts to discover the whereabouts of the Whippet Hotel’s owner before it’s too late. Fans of Pseudonymous Bosch will love this book and its sequel, 3 Below (2012). Audio version is available from Audible and Playaway.

CLARKE, Platte F. Bad Unicorn. S & S/Aladdin. 2013. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-5012-7; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-1-4424-5014-1.
Gr 4-8
–A familiar premise–underdog kid is the only one who can save the world–is put through a satirical shredder. What comes out is action and suspense with a hilarious Monty Pythonesque edge. Multiple points of view keep the plot humming.

GILMAN, Charles. Professor Gargoyle. Bk. 1. (Tales from Lovecraft Middle School Series). Quirk. 2012. Tr $13.99. ISBN 978-1-59474-591-1; pap. $13.99. ISBN 978-1-59474-592-8.
Gr 4-7
–In this series kickoff, Robert is a nice kid just trying to navigate the pitfalls of a new school. It doesn’t take him long to realize, however, that the pitfalls of Lovecraft Middle School may involve actual pits. A wide variety of lusciously phantasmagorical vocabulary (“mesmerized,” “fetid,” “ventriloquist”) festoons the readable, peppy text. Audio version available from Listening Library.

MASS, Wendy. Pi in the Sky. Little, Brown. June 2013. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-316-08916-6; ebook $9.99. ISBN 978-0-316-23501-3.
Gr 5-8
–Joss is bored with his simple job of delivering pies for the Supreme Overlord of the Universe (his dad). Soon, however, something goes badly wrong, and it is Joss’s responsibility to rebuild Earth. Entertaining, unexpected, and irreverent, and yet packed with information about elemental physics and the contents of the universe.

PASTIS, Stephan. Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. Bk. 1. illus. by author. (Timmy Failure Series). Candlewick. 2013. RTE $15.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-6358-2.
Gr 4-6
–A self-proclaimed private detective with a magnificent lack of insight, Timmy and his polar bear sidekick “solve” “mysteries” in super-short, heavily illustrated chapters. This is the kind of pattern-violating humor that makes readers’ brains beg for mercy.

REX, Adam. Cold Cereal. (The Cold Cereal Saga). HarperCollins. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-06-206002-0; pap. $7.99. ISBN 978-0-06-206003-7; ebook $7.99. ISBN 978-0-06-206004-4.
Gr 5-8–Scott thinks he’s a little weird–until he meets Erno and Emily, their friend Biggs, who is very big indeed, and a leprechaun named Mick. This odd team must thwart the evil cereal company that is trying to take over the world. The equally excellent sequel is Unlucky Charms (2013). Audio version available from Listening Library.

SPRATT, R. A. The Adventures of Nanny Piggins. Bk. 1. illus. by Dan Santat. (Nanny Piggins Series). Little, Brown. 2010. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-316-06819-2; pap. $6.99. ISBN 978-0-316-06818-5; ebook $2.99. ISBN 978-0-316-23098-8.
Gr 1-6–Parents who hire Nanny Piggins should be aware that she loves trashy novels and cake, and her idea of fun is to drop things off the roof and watch them crash. Kids who like subversive humor will adore her. Nanny Piggins and the Wicked Plan (2013) is a sequel, with more to come.

Older Kids Love Laughs, Too

BEAUDOIN, Sean. The Infects. Candlewick. 2012. RTE $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-5947-9; ebook $16.99. ISBN 978-0-7636-6211-0.
Gr 9 Up
–Nero’s bad week suddenly gets much worse when people start acting like zombies: lurching, drooling, and lusting after human flesh. It’s ruthlessly fast paced, loaded with pop-culture references, and splattered with gore, and the dialogue raises sarcasm–and profanity–to an art form. Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.

BENWAY, Robin. Also Known As. Walker. 2013. Tr. $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8027-3390-0; ebook $16.99. ISBN 978-0-8027-3391-7.
Gr 7 Up–Maggie is the new girl at a fancy New York City prep school, fresh off a safecracking gig in Iceland. Her current assignment is to infiltrate the family of a magazine publisher. There’s romance, swanky settings, and a brassy sidekick named Roux. Especially for fans of Meg Cabot’s “Airhead” series (Scholastic). Audio version available from Brilliance Audio.

EULBERG, Elizabeth. Revenge of the Girl with the Great Personality. Scholastic. 2013. Tr $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-47699-7; ebook $17.99. ISBN 978-0-545-52078-2.
Gr 7 Up–Lexi keeps a low profile while her seven-year-old sister, Mac, is a pageant queen. But one day, on a dare, she swaps her baggy jeans for skinny ones, curls her hair, and throws on a little makeup. Witty narration and fun dialogue are combined with intelligent thoughts about appearance and self-worth.

HERBACH, Geoff. I’m with Stupid. 2013. ISBN 978-1-4022-7791-7.
. Nothing Special. 2012. ISBN 978-1-4022-6507-5; ISBN 978-1-4022-6508-2.
. Stupid Fast. 2011. ISBN 978-1-4022-563-0; ISBN 978-1-4022-5631-8.ea vol: Sourcebooks/Fire. pap. $9.99. ebook $9.99.
Gr 7 Up
–In this series, Felton Reinstein must come to grips with heartbreak, dysfunction, hope, and his own unexpected transformation from nebbish to gifted athlete. As in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007), Felton’s family problems and personal anxieties are deeply felt but leavened considerably by his wry, self-deprecating narration. Audio version for Stupid Fast available from Recorded Books.

STRAND, Jeff. A Bad Day for Voodoo. Sourcebooks/Fire. 2012. pap. $8.99. ISBN 978-1-4022-6680-5; ebook $8.99. ISBN 978-1-4022-6682-9.
Gr 7 Up–“My mom came home around six and asked me how my day went. I told her, leaving out the voodoo but leaving in Mr. Click’s leg and death.” By page 10, average Florida teen Tyler has inadvertently killed his history teacher, and then things really get weird. A laugh in every paragraph.


COY, John. Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball. illus. by Joe Morse. Carolrhoda. 2013. RTE $16.95. ISBN 978-0-7613-6617-1; ebook $12.95. ISBN 978-0-7613-8723-7.
Gr 1-4–Calisthenics were boring, football and soccer, too rough. James Naismith therefore invented a game that relied on speed, accuracy, and no tackling. Muscular paintings in a muted but vibrant palette suit the historical subject without looking musty, while action panels feature a riot of elongated limbs.

GRIFFITHS, Andy. What Body Part Is That?: A Wacky Guide to the Funniest, Weirdest, and Most Disgustingest Parts of Your Body. illus. by Terry Denton. Feiwel & Friends. 2012. Tr $12.99. ISBN 978-0-312-36790-9; ebbok $9.99. ISBN 978-1-466-82759-2.
Gr 3-7–Research has shown “bizarre elaboration” to have a significant positive effect on retention, especially of vocabulary. “Other easier-to-pronounce names for the esophagus are food funnel, nutrient hose, provisions pipe, chow spout, hamburger highway, taco tunnel, and sausage chute.” Readers will remember lots of anatomy and physiology facts once they’ve ingested this profusely illustrated, super-goofy fun fest.

HALE, Nathan. One Dead Spy: The Life, Times, and Last Words of Nathan Hale, America’s Most Famous Spy. ISBN 978-1-419-70396-6. ISBN 978-1-613-12372-0.
. Big Bad Ironclad! A Civil War Steamship Showdown. ISBN 978-1-419-70395-9; ISBN 978-1-613-12371-3.ea vol: illus. by author. 2012. Abrams/Amulet. (Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales Series). Tr $12.95. ebook $12.95.

Gr 3-8–One Dead Spy begins as Nathan Hale is about to be hanged. He was not a very good spy. But in the hands of Nathan Hale, the present-day graphic novelist, he makes an excellent narrator. American history is hilarious in these lively, rigorously researched, visually engaging stories.

LEVINE, Gail Carson. Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It: False Apology Poems. illus. by Matthew Cordell. HarperCollins. 2012. Tr $15.99. ISBN 978-0-06-178725-6.
Gr 4-6–These spare, sly poems use inference to tell tall tales of deceit and betrayal among family members, friends, and fairy-tale characters. “I have shortened my nose with your saw/because honestly telling lies is so much fun./Forgive me I don’t care about becoming a real boy.”

LEWIS, J. Patrick. Edgar Allan Poe’s Pie: Math Puzzlers in Classic Poems. illus. by Michael Slack. Houghton Harcourt. 2012. Tr $16.99. ISBN 978-0-547-51338-6.
Gr 4-6–Famous poems are adapted into math problems involving boxer shorts, pizza, termites, and more. I think that I shall never solve/A poem that makes my brain evolve/Word problems are made by fools like me/But only Patrick Lewis can make poems like these. Silly, colorful art adds appeal.

LONG, Ethan. The Wing Wing Brothers Math Spectacular! 2013. ISBN 978-0-8234-2604-1.
. Up! Tall! and High! 2012. ISBN 978-0-8234-2320-0.ea vol: illus. by author. Holiday House. RTE $15.95.

PreK-Gr 1–What can you learn from a bird? The Wing Wing Brothers juggle pies and spin plates to demonstrate greater than, less than, and equal to along with addition and subtraction. And the birds of Up! fly, fall, and mount stilts to explain how up, tall, and high are similar but not identical. Cartoony art adds a friendly wink.

Paula Willey reviews children’s and teen books online at Pink Me