Taking Humor Seriously

(originally posted at Through the Tollbooth)

In a fantastic post on the Pippin Properties blog last month, author Kathi Appelt told the story of how she came to write her new, humorous middle grade novel, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. When a friend encouraged her to write something funny, she says,

“My first reaction was Huh? Why funny? What was significant about funny? And furthermore, could I even write something funny? Besides, who takes funny seriously?”

Now, I’m happy to report that loads of people are taking The True Blue Scouts seriously, and it’s earned a slew of starred reviews. Kathi herself goes on to say in her blog post that she’s glad she didn’t let her early fears of not being taken seriously hold her back from writing the book. But her post struck a chord with me because her fears are so familiar to me. I write funny books (or at least I try to make them funny); am I doomed never to be taken seriously?

I think my fears and Kathi’s come from the widespread cultural assumption that if something is fun, it can’t possibly also be good for you. But I refuse to believe that funny books are the sugary, artificially colored cereals of the literary world; I think humor can be nutritious, and it can help young readers to grow just as strong as more serious offerings can.

Here are just a few of the reasons why I think humor is well worth taking seriously:

  • Humor engages readers. All readers—particularly reluctant young readers—need to find an entrance into a story, a way to connect with the words on the page. For some readers, humor can provide that entrance. Readers who can’t find more serious books that speak to them may be pulled into reading funny books instead. Over the years, I have come to love all sorts of books, including many that are serious and sad, but as a kid, I adored funny books more than anything; they were the books that made me a lifelong reader.
  • Humor can facilitate social critique. In books for children, writing about social and political issues runs the risk of coming off as didactic, overly earnest, or dry. But humor lets writers comment on these same issues from a slantwise perspective. Through parody and satire, writers can make serious points in a fresh and clever way. (Take, for example, the pointless and never-ending “caucus race” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Then live through an American election cycle, and compare and contrast!) Because humor takes a bit of the edge off of tough or controversial issues, it can allow us to delve more deeply into those issues than we might be able to in a serious book.
  • Humor can give you a new way of looking at everyday things. One way of crafting a good joke is to examine a normal, commonplace object or situation from a different angle. One of my favorite examples of this comes from the late, great comedian Mitch Hedberg, who said, “An escalator can never break—it can only become stairs.” When you read a lot of humor, you start to look for the little bits of hilarity all around you; you start to think more critically and imagine more freely.
  • Humor makes people happy. And ultimately, I can’t think of anything better than that.