Female Authors Aren’t Funny (And Other Lies You May Have Heard) by Betsy Bird
I poll children for fun and profit. That makes it sound worse than it is, though, so I’ll endeavor to explain.
Our story begins when I was an innocent children’s librarian working the desk at one of the lovely branches of New York Public Library. The kids that walked through my doors were smart cookies. Keen on the latest trends and sometimes daring me with their requests (example: “I’ve read ALL the fantasy novels” – followed by a pointed stare). And one particular request raised its lovely little head time and time again. A kid would come to the desk and just say, “I want something funny”. Challenge accepted!! But it didn’t take me long to figure out that the easy go-to titles were too often written by men. Your Diary of a Wimpy Kids. Your Origami Yodas. Even collections like the Guys Read: Funny Business just has a single woman inside. Fortunately the rise of Wimpy Kid led to increased attention to series like Dork Diaries (the most popular children’s book series written by an African-American woman in America), The Popularity Papers, Ellie McDoodle, and many more. Still, there was something nagging at me. I could find funny women if I knew where to look. But where was my go-to source? My collection of funny writers for children all in one neat and clean little package?
So began the polling of the children to see whom such a collection could include. And the question was really simple: Name the funniest woman in the world. That’s all. Go.
Now the responses to this question vary so widely that I highly suggest you try it out on some kids you know. Find a child between the ages of 9-12 and ask them. I polled parents too, begging them to ask their kids. Of the responses I received his is undoubtedly the best/worst:
“Both my kids say they can’t think of any. I’m curious to hear what others say. Wait…here’s a late entry from J…’all of Jon Arbuckle’s dates’. Ugh. That would be Jon of Garfield fame.”
Here’s a rough estimate of the other responses I received.
15% said “my mom” (this is true)
10% said “her” and pointed to someone else in the room
15% couldn’t think of one
50% said a professional comedian or actress
0% said an author/illustrator/graphic novelist.
That’s right. When polled repeatedly in different parts of the country and with different children, I inevitably find that it never occurs to kids to mention female book creators. Now this is, as I’ve mentioned, an entirely unofficial poll. If I said, “Name the funniest man in the world” instead, what are the chances they’d mention a writer either? So then I started asking them to tell me the funniest female writers they could think of. You want to hear crickets? Try it sometime. It’s not that they can’t do it. They just aren’t quite sure where to begin. They end up mentioning a lot of authors that they like automatically but that aren’t necessarily what you might call “funny”.
It was ever thus. Actually, it used to be a LOT worse. As a 7th grade girl I spent a good swath of my days waiting for my adolescence to end as soon as possible. And like a lot of kids, I found comfort in comedy. From comic strips in the newspaper to comic books to Monty Python sequences to the occasional Saturday Night Live episode, humor was an escape.
Of course the bulk of what I read and watched seemingly came, for the most part, from men. If women were contributing to my funny favorites I was unaware of the fact. For me, humor broke down to four different places: comic strips, television & movies, and the written word. You had your Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary but funny female writers weren’t well publicized. Little has changed since that time.
The historic lack of visibility of funny women in the marketplace (television and movies as well as books and comics) has allowed some infamous commentators to go so far as to claim that women are simply not funny. In January 2007 Christopher Hitchens wrote the provocatively titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny” for Vanity Fair. Mind you, his theory boiled down to the fact that women give birth and aren’t funny about it, therefore they are not funny, period (clearly he never met Ali Wong). After his death the baton was passed to comics like Adam Carolla, who as recently as June 21, 2012 in the New York Post announced that “chicks” had no sense of humor and were always the worst part of any writing team.
Mr. Hitchens, Mr. Carolla and their questions of whether or not an entire gender is sufficiently amusing or not aside, the question here shouldn’t be “Are women funny?” but rather, “How can we spotlight the really funny ones for our young readers?”
After all, we talk so much about empowering girls and giving them the resources they need to cope with childhood and adolescence. Why do we never talk to them about using humor? Perhaps because humor is often automatically considered the lesser art. Actors in humorous roles rarely win Oscars. Humorous books will occasionally win Newbery and Caldecott medals but they are still a small percentage of the whole. Yet humor has the ability to make life and growing up bearable.
Funny Girl (out May 9th) features 25 women who exhibit a whole range of different kinds of funny. Potty humor and situational. High camp, poetry, quizzes, and direct advice from successful stand-up comedians. We’ve got big names like Raina Telgemeier and folks you probably haven’t heard of but should, like 16-year-old Christine Mari Inzer. So why make this book? Because trust me. In this day and age, looking at the times in which we live, I think we all deserve to laugh a little more.
Betsy Bird is the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library, and the former Youth Materials Specialist of New York Public Library. Betsy reviews for Kirkus Reviews and occasionally for The New York Times and she served on the 2007 Newbery Award committee. Her children’s literature blog, A Fuse #8 Production, is hosted by School Library Journal and averages about 15,000 page views a week. Betsy is the author of the picture book Giant Dance Party (Greenwillow, 2013) illustrated by Brandon Dorman, and a co-author on the nonfiction book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature (Candlewick, 2014) which she wrote with fellow bloggers Julie Danielson and Peter Sieruta.