A funny thing happened when I went to my independent bookstore looking for humorous middle grade novels with female protagonists. They couldn’t think of any. Upon serious reflection they came up with the Ramona books by Beverly Clearly—the first of which was published in 1955.
So where are the funny girls? In this golden age of bankable and popular women comedians and actors such as Quinta Brunson, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Ali Wong, has poor Ramona Quimby really been unable to pass the torch of funny middle-grade girl to anyone?
Of course not! There are tons of middle grade books with female protagonists who will keep you in stitches. I will humbly bat my eyes as I tell you that Kirkus called the main character in my novel Susie B. Won’t Back Down “energetic, breathless, enthusiastic, and genuinely, charmingly funny.” But I will also slap you repeatedly with a whoopie cushion as I list off the countless contemporary books that are full of funny girls just waiting to brighten your day, including The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm, Fleabrain Loves Franny by Joanne Rocklin, Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim, Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson, and the Newbery Award-winning Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo.
The problem is not the lack of books; it’s the lack of attention they get. When we think funny, our minds often go to the broadest sorts of humor. We think farts, we think slapstick, we think inversions of authority. According to Julie Cross, author of Humor in Contemporary Junior Literature, these things are often central to funny stories with male protagonists. These stories are also considered boy friendly, and since boys are often seen as reluctant readers, such friendliness is akin to kale hidden in a brownie. It does the body good without drawing too much attention to itself.
Cross notes that while many books with funny male protagonists can seem transgressive in the ways that they mock manners, social conventions and adults, they also reinforce traditional ideas about masculinity. They assure readers that “real” boys break rules as they strive for independence and a life unburdened by deep emotions. Gross-out humor, in particular, can become a way of distancing readers from their own feelings, as well as those of the characters.
Increasingly, broader forms of humor can be found in funny books with female protagonists (in Susie B. Won’t Back Down, Susie B. has one desperate race to a toilet, for example). But, generally, in these books, the comedy is embedded into more emotionally driven stories. Sometimes, the humor involves wordplay, or the main character’s naivety may lead to humorous mishaps or misunderstandings. There are gendered implications here, to be sure. Such stories often re-affirm the widespread idea that girls (like women) are responsible for emotional labor. But, hey, emotional labor is like cleaning the bathroom. It needs to happen. The problem is when we only expect it of girls, women, and underpaid workers.
Just like gross-out humor is becoming more common in books with female protagonists, humor that deals with navigating human relationships is becoming more common in books with male protagonists. A great recent example is How to Win a Slime War by Mae Respicio, where the main character does a lot of emotional labor as he tries to live up to the expectations of his father and make friends in a new school.
In fact, off the top of your head, you can probably think of a dozen relatively recent and popular funny books about boys that include the whole spectrum of comedic types and situations. You’ve got The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger, the Spy School series by Stuart Gibbs, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made by Stephan Pastis, and the Newbery Award-winning Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos.
But if the only funny middle-grade novel you can think of about a girl was written in 1955, we have a problem. Because these books exist. And they are not just doing important work, but they are fun to read.
I hear all the time that boys don’t want to read books about girls. I don’t believe it. I believe gatekeepers don’t trust boys, and I believe all kids like all kinds of funny. Developmental psychologists back me up. They note that gender is pretty insignificant when it comes to humor. Girls like broad humor, just like boys. And boys like more subtle forms of humor, just like girls.
So acknowledge books with funny girls. Seek them out. Share them. They are plentiful. They are hysterical. And if you still want me to slap you with a whoopie cushion… I could be game.
Margaret Finnegan is the author of the middle grade novels We Could Be Heroes, Susie B. Won’t Be Back Down, and the forthcoming New Kids & Underdogs.