￼The Space Between: Why Humor Matters in the Dark by Dev Petty
Humor has gotten me out of some tough spots. Though I’m reluctant to ever say I’m funny (it’s not really for me to judge), humor is certainly a big way I approach the world and the people in that world. It’s sort of a passenger who helps me find the edges and articulate the shape of what’s going on. It’s a filter, a second language, a strange and complicated friend.
The thing of it is, for a long time there, things just stopped being funny. The humorless state of politics laid claim to all the absurdity in the world, leaving none for joy. The depths of sadness and fear during the pandemic and being the messenger of innumerable disappointments for my kids left my well dry. As someone who’s sense of humor is largely defined by people and their idiosyncrasies, inconsistencies, truths, I struggled to find the funny in what was essentially a vacuum. At one point it was like I’d been fluent in a language and then simply forgotten it.
I can admit now, with two funny books which I wrote during the pandemic finally releasing, that I wasn’t sure for a while that I had it in me. I was out of funny. More than that, I wasn’t sure I wanted to have it in me. I felt a little like Steve Martin walking around with a pretend arrow through his head at a funeral, looking for moments to inject my specific brand of coping.
So I had some serious WHAT IS THE POINT going on and for quite some time. It would be easy to say something glib about how I was reminded that the world needs laughter during difficult times etc. and that’s where I found the inspiration to make others laugh again. But that’s not true. As I dove into a rabbit hole to examine both the having and losing of funniness, I came to see something larger at work, not only about the role of humor during difficult times, but the specific space it occupies in children’s books and in children’s lives. I came to believe, and I don’t just think only out of self-preservation, that humor, at least the kind I try to inject into my writing, has a unique role, especially during difficult times.
Humor can occupy a space between writer and reader. It is a coming together, each hat in hand, open, ready, and willing. Humor requires trust. Finding something funny and what exact somethings we find funny is deeply self-revealing. So as I write humor for kids, there’s an intrinsic promise- “I will not pull the rug out from you. This is safe.” I am committing to print for eternity what I find funny, and I’m promising you that it’s ok to find it funny too. I’m not going to, three pages later, make you feel weird for what you found funny. I’m also not going to be mad if you didn’t like the gag on page 12, in fact, I’m just going to keep at it and see if you laugh at page 16. I’m nothing if not dedicated to the cause. In effect, I’m inviting you and the kid next to you, who you may have nothing in common with and in fact don’t particularly like, and may actually have a really well-developed grudge against that you’ve kind of come to appreciate, to find the same things funny. To build some trust with each other through laughing at the same thing.
Humor, again- at least the sort I hope I’m putting into picture books, isn’t costumed in politics, or news, or slights. It requires no advance knowledge of a subject, or even interest in a subject. Funny is funny. In a way, it’s sort of a neutral, elastic place where we can drop our histories, opinions, egos, and access a shared experience. In fact, to really access that experience we MUST drop all those things which requires serious trust because it’s inherently interactive and cooperative.
My dad, who is a professor of political science and probably the smartest and funniest person I know shared some of Roberto Unger’s work with me as I set about writing this piece. This stuck with me:
“It is the impossibility of combining in the same experience consciousness and engagement. When we engage wholeheartedly in shared forms of life and discourse, we must somehow suspend or control our sense of their groundlessness and coerciveness.” – Roberto Mangabeira Unger, False Necessity
What are we, when we share in observing the world through hopeful, trusting eyes, sitting on the communal precipice of maybe laughing, if not combining consciousness and engagement? It is then that we are present. In a way, the act of a kid reading something funny and laughing aloud is writing a new story, one they might tell a friend. “Hey pal, this is a funny part.” And who knows where that new story might go next. The one with a shared, elastic, engaged memory.
Now, I may be imbuing my particular corner of children’s literature with too much importance. All I can speak to is my experience of coming back around to writing two characters who are not at all unsure about their worlds. Chip (from DON’T EAT BEES (Life Lessons From Chip the Dog) and Mr. Tortoise (in HOW OLD IS MR. TORTOISE?) These two know themselves. They like themselves. They share their funny, bare, free-of-pretense points of view in a small act of trust with the reader. Which, I guess, is sort of exactly what I’m trying to do too.
These last years. Kids learned on screens, separate from friends, from teachers, from the data and input that comes in on different channels to say, ever so gently- EVERYTHING IS KINDA GONNA BE OKAY, REALLY. The thing is, kid A and kid B may have had some very different things to work with during this terrible time. They may have had some really varied and dark moments. So trying to articulate that, to lean into that grief might leave someone out, might break a trust. I’ve tried to write about these strange years, but each time realize I may inadvertently step on someone’s experience, either by diminishing it or ignoring it, trivializing it, caricaturing it. I know there are other writers who’ve managed this beautifully, but I just haven’t. I do, however, think I can find funny things we can all relate too. Maybe when parents and kids and teachers, brothers and sisters and friends, and a few lucky writers, laugh together-a little bond is created. Even if they’re laughing over a funny line, a funny video, a funny idea, or something really, truly just funny for funny’s sake. (see: reference to two new books I have above).
I found the funny again. I relearned the language. But it’s a little different than it used to be. Because I’m not trying as much to make anyone laugh…I’m hoping we can laugh together.
Thank you for reading (and sometimes laughing).
Dev Petty writes picture books that make you laugh a lot and think a little, sometimes the reverse. She is the author of HOW OLD IS MR. TORTOISE?, I DON’T WANT TO BE A FROG, DON’T EAT BEES (Life Lessons from Chip the Dog), CLAYMATES and many others along with the upcoming ELMORE the CHRISTMAS MOOSE (Doubleday 2024).
She used to work in film effects as a painter. You can see her work in dozens of films, including The Matrix Trilogy, along with dozens of television and game projects. Dev says picture books are sort of like little, paper movies and she is mighty grateful to get to discover new ways to tell stories.
Dev is a Berkeley native and lives just blocks from where she grew up. She lives with her husband, daughters, dogs, cat, and a snake named “Boots.”