Children's column: make 'em laugh

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children Friday, 13th March 2009

Red Nose Day today (13 March) makes me think of children's authors who have done something funny for money. Mark Twain wrote: There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult - the humorous. The establishment last year of the Roald Dahl Prize at last acknowledged that funny children's books deserve accolades, but as a rule I think the same tendency to undervalue humour that prompted Twain's assertion still prevails. We assume funny is easy to write, when in fact humour is often, like poetry, a question of expressing what oft was thought, but ne er so well expressed. It entails surprise, so it requires more than ordinary observation or imagination. And it is a genre in which there is no room for sloppiness and extraneous material: it has to be concise, and as exact on paper as timing has to be in performance.

In children's books, humour is not just difficult, but also important, because if you want to make new readers or convert reluctant ones, making them laugh is your best tactic. Look at the success of Horrid Henry, Captain Underpants and Mr Gum at taking children across the bridge from being able to read to wanting to. And of Jeremy Strong, author of the week on the Scholastic link from the Red Nose Day website (featured book: My Brother's Hot Cross Bottom). Commendably, Scholastic, in its partnership with Comic Relief, is challenging children to read something funny for money through its school book fairs, and aiming to raise £50,000 for the charity. Egmont's collaboration has produced Mr Funny's Red Nose Day, in Roger Hargreaves' Mr Men series. And Random House is offering £2 to Comic Relief from every copy sold of Jacqueline Wilson's Tracy Beaker's Thumping Heart. Hooray that these partnerships with publishers are making a Comic Relief connection between laughter and books.

Last year's Roald Dahl shortlist, though, raised interesting questions about what funny picturebooks are. Are they books with pictures and jokes, or books with funny pictures? Or books that subvert your expectations? Or just books with pants and bottoms in them? The shortlist for the younger category included the odd as well as the rib-tickling and made me contemplate what sort of images make children giggle, if pictures can be funny on their own, and whether everything depends on the relationship between text and picture. This is an invitation to answer these questions with examples, by emailing BookBrunch the funniest picturebooks you know. Some of our family favourites were mentioned in this Dahl Prize feature, so I won't repeat myself. Instead, over to you.