It’s 2020: we can all agree that women are funny. The growing wave of successful female-driven TV comedies, films, and stand-up specials simply confirms what’s always been true. The reality check is hitting the realm of children’s books, too, with the release of books such as Betsy Bird’s anthology Funny Girl (Viking, 2017), Raina Telgemeier’s heartfelt and humorous graphic memoirs (Graphix), and Renée Watson’s forthcoming Ramona Quimby tribute Ways to Make Sunshine (Bloomsbury, Apr.). Following the famous rule of three, PW spoke with a trio of authors whose new and forthcoming books showcase young women from a wide range of backgrounds, all with comedic talent and ambition to perform.
Taking Down the Boys’ Club
Making her debut this spring is actor-turned-author Nicole Kronzer, whose YA novel Unscripted (Amulet, Apr. 21) tackles #MeToo issues in the context of the comedy world. Seventeen-year-old Zelda Bailey-Cho is determined to become a famous comedian, and she believes that attending Rocky Mountain Theatre Arts Summer Camp is the first step on her ladder to success. When Zelda lands a spot as the sole girl on the camp’s varsity improv team, she faces the pressure of representing her fellow female campers (only five total) while grappling with her male teammates’ misogyny and her coach Ben’s inappropriate advances. As Ben crosses the line, both verbally and physically, he threatens to derail Zelda’s future if she speaks out. But even in a culture of “yes, and,” no means no.
A seasoned comedian, Kronzer said, “I started doing improv comedy in the ’90s when I was in high school. I noticed some things that felt unfair—things guys said to girls. The boys weren’t mean-spirited, just young. But I didn’t know how to stand up for myself.” Kronzer went on to launch her college improv team and to perform professionally in the Twin Cities. She began to reflect more on the gender dynamics that “sometimes get in the way” of building a strong ensemble, she explained. “Not all of the things that are said to Zelda in the book have been said to me, but they have been said to women. The book’s not a carbon copy of my life, but I have felt like Zelda has felt, and I think a lot of women have.”
Addressing the subject of consent for young adults felt like a natural choice for Kronzer, who now teaches high school English and creative writing. “Teens are my people,” she said. “That’s who I’m writing for because that’s who I work with. These ideas have been percolating in my heart and brain for lots of years. When #MeToo began to rise up, I thought: there’s something in the zeitgeist.” When asked if she sees comedy as a tool for social change, Kronzer said, “Holy cow, yes. In many ways, the world is a dumpster fire right now—but we can’t give up. I think that comedy is one of those major ways we release tension and anxiety so we can do the work that needs to be done. Comedians are some of the first people to come to our aid when there’s strife.”
Zelda is not the only one to feel marginalized within the comedy community. Kronzer’s cast of characters reflects a diverse range of teens, including Zelda’s Korean-American stepbrother who is gay, lesbian and POC friends, and a young woman with albinism, all of whom navigate microaggressions and outright hostility. Kronzer said, “Traditionally, women and people of color have been denied a mainstream platform to develop their voices. Comedy is power. We trust and like people who make us laugh. Girls are often told they’re not funny, but it’s getting better as girls are seeing more and more examples [of women in comedy]. That’s why representation is so important.”
Throughout the writing and publishing process, Kronzer found support from two fellow children’s authors, Nina LaCour, who became a friend and mentor after visiting the school near Minneapolis where Kronzer teaches, and Crying Laughing author Lance Rubin (see below), who reached out when he heard news of Kronzer’s upcoming comedy-themed debut. “We call our books ‘improv siblings,’ ” Kronzer said of Unscripted and Crying Laughing. Next up, Kronzer has multiple projects in the pipeline. She’s taking a sabbatical from teaching to write full-time, but said she looks forward to getting back to the classroom. “I miss teenagers,” she said.
Truth in Comedy
In April 2018, Jessica Kim found a launch pad for her debut #OwnVoices novel, Stand Up, Yumi Chung! (Kokila, Mar.), through the #DVPit Twitter event.
Kim said she was “surprised by the overwhelming likes” she received for her middle-grade pitch, about a Korean-American girl who, against the wishes of her academic-minded parents, secretly attends a comedy camp using another kid’s name. Bolstered by the feedback on social media, Kim queried agents that same day and, within about 12 hours, received her first offer of representation. Within two weeks, she signed with Thao Le at the Dijkstra Agency in a two-book deal.
Though Kim isn’t a performer herself, she said, “I love the art form of stand-up comedy. It’s one of the rawest expressions: your own wit and a microphone.” Kim explained that the character of Yumi is “largely autobiographical. I was kind of grappling with my feelings about pursuing something creative as a writer. As a child of immigrants myself, I wondered if it was worth it to pour so much time, money, and effort into this dream. It felt like two parts of my heart were battling. Through my Asian upbringing, I was taught to pursue something stable. But having grown up in the U.S., I was also taught the American value of following your dream. That inherent conflict was really interesting to me.”
In the book, Yumi’s first-person narration is interspersed with pages from her Super-Secret Comedy Notebook, giving a peek into her process of spinning daily observations into comedy routines. Kim said, “I do keep a notebook myself. I thought it would be a fun way for young readers to see how things build. Usually, I start small and revise a bunch of times. It takes a lot of work and mistakes to get to where it is at the end.”
Kim pulled from her childhood as well as her former career as an elementary school teacher to bring authenticity to Yumi’s experience attending Korean hagwon (a test-prep program) and camp with fellow middle schoolers. “I truly just wrote the book for my young self, as a reflection of my everyday reality,” she said. “So I’ve been really amazed and surprised by the people of all backgrounds who are finding some resonance. I’ve learned you don’t have to try to be universal, because all stories are in essence universal.”
Kim said she hopes young readers will take Yumi’s lessons in truth-telling and self-discovery to heart. “I really want them to know it’s okay to mess up, to not know what to do next. We don’t have to take the straight shot to perfection; we can take a roundabout way. As much as it’s about finding your passion, the bigger message is to take your time, enjoy the journey, and learn along the way.”
Kim is currently working on another middle-grade novel featuring a Korean-American main character. All she can reveal for the moment is that it’s “funny and contemporary.”
Save the Last Laugh
Lance Rubin’s Crying Laughing (Knopf, Nov. 2019) is his most personal novel yet, pulling from his experience in comedy and his father’s diagnosis in 2001 of primary lateral sclerosis, a slower-progressing variant of ALS. In the book, two years after bombing a stand-up act at her Bat Mitzvah, 15-year-old Winnie Friedman decides to master her stage fright and join the school improv team. At the same time, Winnie’s father, her comic inspiration, reveals some very serious news: he’s been diagnosed with ALS. Still, he keeps the jokes coming and encourages his family to do the same.
“I’ve been in the comedy world since I was a teenager,” Rubin said. “So exploring it in a book felt really exciting to me, like I was on firm ground.” Prior to his career as a YA author, Rubin acted in musicals written by Joe Iconis and in The Lance and Ray Show with Ray Muñoz at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, among others. Since he is no longer performing on a regular basis, “It’s nice that I could write a book like this and get my comedy fix.”
Capturing the immediacy of improv in writing proved to be an enjoyable challenge. “I hadn’t seen improv in a YA novel, and I thought how tricky it would be to bring it to the page; so much requires being in the room,” Rubin said. “In going to some shows, I realized a book can really let you into the brain of the improviser—in this case, Winnie—to share what’s going through her head on stage. It became less about capturing the spontaneity of improv itself, and more about the rollercoaster of being in the show.”
The novel also offers a critique of gender roles through the lens of improv. Recognizing Winnie’s sense of humor, classmate Evan encourages her to join the improv team and pursues her romantically, until he becomes threatened by her talent and fears being upstaged. Winnie finds an antidote to this “fragile masculinity” among her more supportive teammates, Rubin said. “Improv, especially longform, can be seen as a metaphor for life. In the best shows, everyone on stage has so much respect for each other. They are listening and they are seeing one another. Everyone is an equal. In that regard, there’s immense wisdom that teens can draw from it.”
At its heart, the book is a celebration of family. Rubin acknowledged his wife, Katie Schorr, as “a huge inspiration for Winnie and her self-deprecating brand of sarcasm.” And after sharing Crying Laughing with his parents, he is glad to know “they both love the book. Humor has been so helpful in our journey. We are a very funny family and that’s been amazing, but also sometimes making jokes becomes an excuse not to look at the gravity of what’s happening. I was really trying to make the story more personal by going deeper into my own experience with humor in times of crisis.”
Looking ahead, Rubin is at work on an early draft of his first middle-grade novel. He said, “As much as teens are into comedy, I feel like the 8-to-12 age bracket are really into laughing. They’re still leaning toward funny over darkness.”
Unscripted by Nicole Kronzer. Amulet, $17.99 Apr. 21 ISBN 978-1-4197-4084-8
Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim. Kokila, $16.99 Mar. 17 ISBN 978-0-525-55497-4
Crying Laughing by Lance Rubin. Knopf, $17.99 Nov. 2019 ISBN 978-0-525-64467-5