Ten types of humour PB writers need to know about
I love writing funny picture book stories. I’m not sure where these sudden bursts of subversive humour come from or if my ideas are even right for the market (I’ve not sold one yet! – only gentle humour), but they are a joy to write.
Humorous picture books do sell well – but how do we know if our story drafts are the right kind of funny? And most importantly are they funny enough!
When I first started writing picture books I realised I knew absolutely nothing about comedy writing, so I did what all book lover types do, I read up on it, then I watched a lot of funny TV, and passed a critical eye over the picture book market.
There’s actually very little guidance on writing or performing funny stories/sketches for young children, so I have adapted and ad-libbed taking the best advice from adult comedy writers and applied it to the PB market. I hope this will help you find your funny bone.
So, what makes you giggle?
Were you a fan of Tom and Jerry or Road Runner when you were a child? Slapstick/accident prone humour definitely appeals to the young, after all they do fall over and get gunk on their faces a lot. Funny expressions also come into this category.
Vehicle or journey themed stories are a natural fit. BEEB BEEB, HONK HONK! One of our favourites is Mini Racer by Kristy Dempsey, a rhyming whacky races concept. On every page, one of the crazy cars (there is a rabbit driving a carrot) crashes out.
Also, in Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins, the fox has one mishap after another as he stalks Rosie around the farmyard. Note: almost always in these stories, the little guy outwits the big guy, though The Squirrels who Squabbled by Helen Bright, is a good example of a double act.
If you laugh when someone farts then this one’s for you (along with most 2-5-year-old boys!) It’s an extension of physical humour but deserves its own category due to massive popularity. Farts, bums, wee, poop, bogies and all potty-training books, line up here!
Surreal (or just plain silly) humour
This is the heartland of picture books and when exaggerated for comic effect can be very funny indeed. Of course, in real life aliens don’t wear underpants, a book cannot eat a dog and you wouldn’t usually find a shark in your bath. But wouldn’t it be hilarious if you did! This humour either has a normal character in a comic world or a comic character in a normal world.
What if… that’s the question. Let your imagination fly.
Do you love a pun or chuckle at a silly rhyme or playground joke? There are so many wonderful picture books in this category, it’s hard to choose only three examples.
Dr Seuss and Alan & Janet Alhberg of course, and the recent viral phenomenon, Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith, originally based on a playground joke: What’s a donkey called if he only has three legs? Click here to watch the funny clip to find out how a giggling Scottish Granny can boost book sales!
I almost rejected this one as an adult live action comedy technique but then one picture book came to mind. Of course, a book cannot literally improvise, but it is possible to make the characters sound as if they are improvising, with witty repartee and timely page turns.
In Oi Frog! by Kes Grey, the frog persistently asks the somewhat superior cat which animal is allowed to sit where. The cat refuses to be out-questioned and comes up with increasingly funny answers. The story is part witty wordplay, part surreal humour and part impro.
Spoofs, Tropes and Parodies.
I think this humour is aimed more at the adult reader than the child. One of our favourites PBs is Traction Man is Here by Mini Grey. My son doesn’t remember Action Man or his overly macho gear, but I do – my Action Man and Sindy were great friends. I also love Nuts in Space by Elys Donan, which not only sends up the sci-fi series Lost in Space but also features the Death Banana and a Darth Vadar lookalike.
Twisted or fractured fairy tales also fit into this category and are popular with publishers.
Do you cheekily challenge authority, commonly held beliefs or the set way of doing things? Do you think why when someone asks you to do (or not do) something? Or perhaps you are a mischievous saboteur or heckler! Rebel humour is satisfyingly subversive.
This technique is all about finding the humour in everyday life, focusing on a common moment or problem and retelling it in a hilarious and unexpected way. I could list most of Lauren Child’s, Charlie and Lola series… Lola is also a fantastic rebel!
And Mr. Panda is very good at teaching manners!
This is not a sense of humour young children understand easily, nor do we want them to as it’s based on negative feelings and a lack of self-worth. Plenty of picture books, however, flip this negativity on its head and deliver, in a humorous way, a positive message about self-esteem.
Giraffes can’t Dance by Giles Andreae is a triumphant story about a giraffe who finds his own tune. Thelma the Unicorn by Aaron Blabey is about learning to love who you are, even if you don’t have sparkles.
Do you have a wicked dark side? Throwing light on fears and antisocial behaviour in a comic way makes these sometimes embarrassing and difficult topics easier to talk about. Most picture books have a reassuring happy ending, but in darkly humorous tales the main character might just meet a sticky end.
A few extra tips
Exaggeration and surprise are the keys to comic writing. Trouble comes in threes, make no. 3 an inappropriate (funny/surprising) response. e.g. The cheeky little fish thinks he gets away with stealing the hat once, twice, but not thrice!
The best stories have a mixture of humorous elements that appeal to both the parent and the child.
I love comments and so should you. If you want to know if your brand of humour is right for young children, test your story in a crit group.
And please share your favourite funny picture books here.