Four children’s book authors walk into a library and… discuss the challenges, joys, and mechanisms of writing humor for kids. The event, part of the New York Public Library’s ongoing Children’s Literary Salon series, was moderated by youth materials collections specialist Elizabeth Bird. The authors were David Roman (Astronaut Academy: Zero Gravity), Nick Bruel (the Bad Kitty books), Laurie Keller (Arnie the Doughnut), and Jules Feiffer (Bark, George).
Suggesting that funny books might be some of the "most difficult to write because of the subjective nature of humor," Bird went on to ask the panel how they first came to write humorous books for kids.
"I was trying to write books that traumatize kids, but failed," joked Bruel, before explaining that it simply comes naturally to him to write funny books: "I can only hope people find them as funny as I do," he added.
Feiffer echoed Bruel’s sentiment, suggesting that a funny writer is a funny writer is a funny writer, and that a story has a way of finding itself—"it comes out the way it wants to.... the characters or story take over."
The authors all agreed that forcing humor is rarely successful. For Roman and Keller, they didn’t necessarily aim to write humorous content, but as their careers evolved, humor became one of the strongest aspects of their work. As Roman explained, he started out being a "serious illustrator," but found that humor was organically present in his voice. While 'there’s no magical code or science" behind being funny, he did learn to respect his natural inclinations and allow his sense of humor to take center stage.
Before Keller embraced her funny side, she said she used to "doodle in the closet." When others noticed the humor shining through her writing and illustrations, she began freely creating the material that made her laugh. "I go with what I feel is funny," she remarked.
Bird then asked the panel speakers about the target audience for the humor in their books. Feiffer stated his belief that "you can’t write for anybody but yourself. If you’re writing for the kid in yourself, it’s still yourself." Humor is about one’s sense of identity, he said, and many creative people grow up struggling to fit in ("thinking with a loose screw"). Humor can sometimes be a way for artists to free themselves from restrictions and "let those screws loose."
While Bruel said he avoids being too specific with his humor, there are certain considerations he keeps in mind when writing for kids. For example, kids will sometimes take figurative language literally. Bruel learned that the hard way, when he told a young audience that the way to "draw blood from your mother’s face" is to tell her that you want to be a picture book author. Turns out, traumatizing kids and making them laugh can go hand-in-hand.
Roman stated that he doesn’t feel as though he’s "doing anything different" when he’s writing for kids, noting that whenever he’s writing, he’s still writing for himself and that "you can’t outsmart kids" by having preconceptions about what will or won’t make them laugh. He never imagined that his joke about a teenager who can transform into a yacht would resonate with others. But what started out as a personal gag, is now Teen Boat, a graphic novel coming out next May from Clarion.
Through the use of funny asides, thought-bubbles, and other capricious details, Keller described how picture books give her the ability to layer her humor in degrees. By creating a humor stratagem, she can potentially broaden her audience to even include adults (for example, in one of her books she referenced The New Kids on the Block, knowing that kids probably wouldn’t get the joke).
Roman pointed out that there are plenty of times when kids get the jokes but adults don’t. It can be "more fun when kids get it but parents are clueless," he said. Commenting on his own response to humor when he was a child, Roman described loving the feeling that an author was speaking directly to him. He later understood that others forged similar connections and found these same jokes funny, but he emphasized how valuable it is for a book’s humor to maintain a sense of intimacy for readers, even when appealing to a broad audience.
While not all authors have children immediately in their lives, Feiffer described having had a demanding audience and critic in his daughter, Julie. He first wrote Bark, George in the form of an impromptu bedtime story (Julie didn’t laugh). But later audiences for the published book would "scream with hilarity" at the book’s humor, underscoring for him how difficult it can be to anticipate whether or not children will find something funny. "Theorizing about what kids will get is a lost cause," he said.
Responding to Bird’s question about the challenges of switching gears between book formats and age groups, Keller noted the draw of characters as vehicles for humor in children’s books. Readers’ enthusiasm for Arnie the Doughnut led to her current project, a chapter book starring the eponymous hero. But without the layers of humor peppered throughout her illustrations, Keller has faced the challenge of targeting the chapter book more specifically to a certain age group. She referenced having to remove a specific reference to Marilyn Monroe, fearing that kids wouldn’t get it.
For Roman, the graphic novel format gives him particular freedom to communicate with his audience through grades of print and image. But, generally speaking, he explained how he "expands" the idea for a particular project before solidifying the format that it will take.
Meanwhile, Bruel said he finds the chapter book format to be especially liberating, without some of the restrictions present in picture books. He added that he doesn’t typically think about target ages with his books. Instead, like the Looney Tunes cartoons that he grew up watching, he aims for a joke to appeal on multiple, psychological levels before building to a crescendo, saying that a joke is more than just its punchline.
Feiffer, on the other hand, spoke about how he loves working within the restraints of the picture book format, finding it a challenge to artfully convey his ideas within the limited space provided. He again emphasized how the stories he tells take on lives of their own, determining the end result for themselves.
Closing remarks led to a discussion of the origins of humor, with Feiffer suggesting that humor is probably innate, but that children risk losing that "sense of fun,' by having it "educated out." Bruel told the audience that his sense of humor developed first as a means of survival, as he believes it does for many people. Learning to adapt to challenges when he was a child, he developed an appreciation for the "deeply important... personal joy" that comes from making people laugh.