Funny Books for Unfunny Times

Betsy Bird looks at new trends in humor and recommends 25 funny books for kids.

In Andrea Tsurumi’s 2017 picture book Accident!, animals of every shape, sort, and size encounter a calamitous cacophony of mistakes, bloopers, and faux pas. The world around them erupts in personal failures, culminating in what would have to be remembered as the most impressive library-related fiasco in children’s literary history.

The true moral of the story, though, is that an accident is just that: an accident. It may feel as though the world is falling down around your ears, but when push comes to shove, sometimes your mistakes aren’t as earthshaking as you believe them to be.

We live in a world where the act of simply listening to the news can reveal a flurry of horrifying events. Young ears hear the litany of everything from school shootings to the rise of dictators, environmental disasters, polar vortexes, poverty, endemic racism, and more. One could come to the conclusion that the end of the world is nigh. There is no denying that we are facing huge problems.

The cup of cold comfort? It’s not all ending tomorrow. Still, sometimes it can be tricky for children to separate the things that are truly scary from the problems in their own lives that might be merely bad.

It’s fascinating to me to consider how individual children’s books reflect the world in which we live and what they’re saying collectively. Take the funny books for kids out there. At their best, they can serve as a corrective to what can seem like an unending stream of bad news.

“It’s so important for kids to develop a good sense of humor. They’re growing up in heavy times,” says Adam Rubin, author of the funny book High Five (illustrated by Daniel Salmieri). “If they can’t laugh at the state of the world, it might break them.

“In my experience, laughter can be a potent cure-all, and it can bring all sorts of different people together,” Rubin continues. “Picture books are especially great, because they can be as funny for a toddler as for an older sister, the parents, and the grandparents, too. If the whole family can share a good laugh, that’s pretty life-affirming, no matter what’s going on in the news that day.”

Whistling past the apocalypse

Some of those funny picture books tackle the end of existence head-on. In Jonathan Stutzman and Heather Fox’s Llama Destroys the World, for example, an innocent little llama (capable of saying only “I am Llama!” and “dat” when it wants something) inadvertently causes the end of the universe, thanks to a sweet tooth and a propensity for madcap dance. It all turns out OK, of course, but you don’t usually expect to stare into a void of nonexistence during storytime.

Nor, for that matter, do you tend to encounter the zombie apocalypse as it pertains to eating your veggies. Yet in Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies! by Jorge and Megan Lacera, protagonist Mo Romero wants to do precisely that. The jokes land well, and with its Latinx main character, the Spanish edition (translated by Yanitzia Canetti) makes sure that all the translated jokes work, too. Humanity may be is doomed, but I feel good about a future where goofy, silly literature is as inclusive as the somber, serious fare.

Along similar lines, in his blurb for Lamar Giles’s middle grade The Last Last-Day-of-Summer, author Jason Reynolds nails why this hilarious book about black boys saving the world is so necessary. “It reminds me that every child, regardless of background, deserves adventure void of trauma,” Reynolds wrote. Sure, the book’s cousins Otto and Sheed may have accidentally frozen their town in time. So the Legendary Alstons, as the boys are called, may be the reason the world—or their town—needs saving, but what’s adventure without a little complicity on the side?

Destruction and hilarity

If it’s the end of Earth as we know it that you seek, look no further than We’re Not from Here by Geoff Rodkey. The destruction of the human race isn’t usually paired with hilarity, but Rodkey keeps the writing sharp and witty when Lan, a character purposefully never identified as either male or female, must essentially use slapstick and gag jokes to convince a planet full of aliens that the human race has something going for it.

Still, the world doesn’t actually have to end for a kid to feel like everything has come crashing down around them. All they need is a good strong tornado. In Susan Vaught’s Me and Sam-Sam Handle the Apocalypse, neurodivergent heroine Jesse Broadview has a mystery to solve. Her father has been accused of stealing the library’s missing fund money, so an investigation is in order. And that’s all before the tornado rips through her town of Avery, KY. Nothing like an act of God to allow a girl to show what’s she made of.

Proving her mettle is also the goal of the heroine in Mya’s Strategy to Save the World by Tanya Lloyd Kyi. Remember when I mentioned that the world was full of scary problems? Activist Mya is determined to face them all, while her average seventh grade life is proving difficult in its own way. In any case, it’s hard not to sympathize with a heroine who starts the book off with the bold declaration, “There are two types of people in the world: those who sleep with tissue boxes on their bedside tables, and those who pick their noses before bed and wipe their boogers on the sheets. I am the first type. My sister, Nanda, is the second.” Any book that can navigate between statements like that and discussions of the persecution of the Rohingya is doing something right.

Graphic novels

Funny picture books and novels are one thing, but in a library or bookstore, it’s often the comic book section that kids turn to when they want laughs. With the rise in serious graphic literature, however, they can’t always rely on finding sequential art to be amusing. Nathan Hale can usually be counted on, though. His history series “Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales” often manages to find humor in even the bleakest of story lines (paging the Donner Dinner Party). Occasionally Hale will write stand-alone tales as well. For example, One Trick Pony is about how humanity survives technology-devouring space aliens. Apocalypse Taco also considers the destruction of the human race, but with the aid of bees (causing the destruction), grad students (attempting to avert the destruction), and Brigadoon (a darned good bit of musical theater!). As funny as it is terrifying, Apocalypse Taco is a rare humorous horror comic. One minute our young heroes are fighting off mushy villains with a car’s snow scraper. The next they’re accidentally mooning them, thanks to an unfortunate incident with a Utilikilt. The action treads just the right line between gross and silly.

There’s nothing outright apocalyptic about starting at a new school. But if you’re going from a school where you’re confident that you won’t stand out to one where you fear you’ll be the only black kid in your class, that kind of switch is world shattering in its own way. New Kid by Jerry Craft has distinguished itself this season as one of the canniest, sharpest examinations of endemic racism in middle grade literature. The comic follows artistic Jordan, a seventh grader starting at a prestigious private school. There he encounters teachers who routinely mistake their black students for one another, librarians who foist gritty urban novels on kids of color, and ingrained assumptions from the faculty that Jordan must be “angry” if he ever complains. None of this sounds like a recipe for hilarity, but Craft deftly inserts funny bits at just the right moments. Whether it’s Jordan’s mom screaming a goodbye to her “Baby!” out the window or the comics Jordan writes about his life, there are definitely gut busters sprinkled about.

Small heroes tackling catastrophes

Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai is also about a boy at a new school. Essentially Jingwen’s world ended when his father died and his mom decided to up and move the family from what appears to be Indonesia to Australia. Jingwen doesn’t speak the language and views everyone around him as aliens, a fact that lends this graphic novel hybrid a nice surreal quality. As in Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and Patti Kim’s Here I Am, language is rendered in indecipherable symbols, punctuated with the rare bits of English that Jingwen already knows. All this might add up to be horribly bleak and difficult were it not for younger brother Yanghao, a trickster and goofball. I don’t know that I’ve read a book with the word “booger” repeated so often—and so well.

It’s hard for most adults to see the world from a kid’s point of view. The farther you get from your own childhood, the more difficult it can be to remember why seemingly small things are so very important to children. Maybe, by filling books with catastrophes and bringing in small heroes to tackle those problems with fun and laughter, children’s authors give young readers the knowledge that big problems can be defeated. The trick is in being aware, alert, prepared—and if you happen to be outfitted with a sense of humor as well, all to the good! The end of the world is a bleak prospect by definition. These books practically make it desirable. Or, at the very least, conquerable.


Elizabeth Bird is the collection development manager at the Evanston (IL) Public Library and an award-winning blogger at “A Fuse #8 Production.”

 

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