Humor Books – Why Readers Need Them More Than Ever, by Debbie Ridpath Ohi
When I was a young child, I remember my father coming into the room where we kids were playing, and telling us that our grandfather had just died. My reaction? I laughed.
I cringe even now, thinking about that moment. I loved my grandfather, and my father was clearly grief-stricken when he told us. It was the first time someone I knew had died. I grieved in my own way, later on, and was mortified about how I had reacted. As a grown-up, I understand that my younger self was just overwhelmed, unable to process her emotions. Back then, however, I couldn’t help but wonder: What’s WRONG with me?
Children’s book author/illustrator Kevin Sylvester says, “I think kids want to laugh, they need to laugh… and they laugh anyway in the weirdest and toughest situations. Does it mask the pain and make it go away? Not if we are open about the fullness of that experience. Humour is part of HOW we cope, not a replacement. I think being totally serious all the time is just as much a mask.”
And speaking of masks and coping, let’s talk about 2020.
Like many others out there, I lost my footing this past year. Especially in the early days of the pandemic, I found it nearly impossible to focus. I had (and still have) elder family members in lockdown at senior homes. I was worried about family, friends, the world in general. I spent too much time reading the news.
In social media, I was uncertain about why I should and shouldn’t post. Every one has their own way of using social media. My own approach has always been to focus on positivity and hope, but there were times this past year when I found this a struggle.
It was easier to help promote and talk about books about serious issues, especially those directly relevant to what’s been going on the world. What wasn’t so easy: talking about humor books, or books that weren’t explicitly focused on serious issues. Early in the pandemic, it felt weird and inappropriate to be talking about Gurple And Preen: A Broken Crayon Cosmic Adventure, for example, with people getting sick and dying around the world because of the pandemic, front line workers risking their lives, schools and businesses being shut down, people losing their jobs, and what was going in with U.S. politics.
I’m not the only one who felt like this.
Alexandra Thompson’s debut picture book, A Family For Louie, came out from Putnam in early June. Alexandra said that around the time she had been prepared to gear up for the launch, everything shut down. “On top of the pandemic, there was the murder of George Floyd on May 25th. There were Black Lives Matter protests and black out Tuesday on Instagram. Promoting my book about a foodie french bulldog within a week of that was literally the last thing I wanted to do. There were so many bigger issues happening, it felt out of touch and inappropriate. Since it was my debut book, I definitely felt disappointed about how it all went down…and then guilty that I was disappointed when people were going through such hardships. I guess it’s possible to feel all the feelings, right?”
Despite a challenging time to debut, Alexandra is being philosophical about it all. “I honestly don’t have any big takeaways from the whole thing. We can’t control when our books come out or world events. We just have to do the best that we can. I think it’s really great that people are sharing ways to promote books during the pandemic, now that we’ve had some time to settle in and things aren’t going back to normal anytime soon. I hope we can all just cheer each other on and keep an open dialogue about what’s working and what’s not for book launches and the promotion that follows.”
Conversations like this prompted me to poll the kidlit community last week about how they felt about humor books, especially during the past year.
Some said that humor books can help get kids excited about reading. One educator says she uses humor books mainly for read-alouds in her classroom. “Those are the books that the kids go back to, over and over. Even reluctant readers are drawn in.”
“Humorous books inspire attention while at the same time helping students to discuss something,” says teacher-librarian Jennifer Nazzarelli. “Having a naked bum illustration always helps! For example: No, David! by David Shannon and NAKED! by Michael Ian Black. Also- humour can just make a day better! I had a grade 4 class who couldn’t get enough of the Mo Willems Pigeon books. We would read them over and over.”
Kevin Sylvester says that his first book for young people, Sports Hall Of Weird, was silly and filled with goofy, true sports stories. “So many teachers came up to me and said “X kid doesn’t like reading, but laughed so hard they finished your book.” Kevin adds, “I was that kid.”
Humor helps with engagement for older students, says educator Teresa Smithhisler. In addition to serving as mentor texts for reading and writing skills, Teresa says humor books are good for “bonding time with my own boys at home.” Another educator says that humor books have kept their students engaged during virtual learning. “I love having humorous books to introduce any topic, especially if they have big, clear illustrations.”
Many said that humor books make it easier to start discussions about difficult topics.
Teacher-librarian Geralyn Westervelt told me, “I spent this year beefing up my collection of #ownvoices, inclusion, diverse, SEL, even some books on the pandemic specifically. These are necessary and important. But I began to feel the ‘heaviness’ of what I was putting on students. I wanted their time to be lighter, fun, a different kind of learning. I started with all your ‘I’M…’ books. And I plan to use some Ame Dyckman, Bob Shea, Jon Agee. All of these authors write books that speak to the human condition—I can help students to infer meaning, but we can laugh along the way. It is not a world in which to add anything else heavy. Our burdens are enough.”
One educator said that he uses Winger by Andrew Smith (illustrator Sam Bosma) in his first book talk with freshmen every year. “My kids, even in some of the most dire situations, still have a sense of humor and use it to cope. They don’t always want to see super-serious themed books.”
Humor books can help grown-ups as much as young readers. One person who answered my poll says, “I’m as mentally exhausted as the kids, and need the release that laughter brings.”
Brian of Help Readers Love Reading points out that books don’t always need to have a lesson or target social/emotional learning goals. “Most of my read alouds have been humorous just because they’re funny. If 2020 hasn’t shown us the need for and benefit of books that help us laugh and escape for a while, what will? Laughing when things are good is easy. Books that make you laugh when things are tough are magical.”
Question: How do YOU use humor books in the classroom? Which are your favorites?
Debbie Ridpath Ohi is the author and illustrator of WHERE ARE MY BOOKS? and SAM & EVA (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers). Her illustrations also appear in books by Judy Blume and Michael Ian Black, among others. Her newest book is GURPLE AND PREEN: A BROKEN CRAYON COSMIC ADVENTURE (2020), written by Linda Sue Park and illustrated by Debbie. Debbie is currently working on illustrations for I’M SORRY, written by Michael Ian Black and scheduled to come out from Simon & Schuster in 2021. For more info about Debbie and upcoming projects, see DebbieOhi.com. You can find Debbie on Twitter at @inkyelbows, Instagram at @inkygirl and Youtube at @debbieohi.