The following are notes from Episode 7 of the Kid You Not podcast about children’s literature.
First, Clem and Lauren read an excerpt from Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging which was a teenage favourite for both of them. [I have an issue with the amount of ‘body critique’ which goes on in books aimed at teenage girls, because I think it not only reflects it but promotes it. Though I don’t doubt the extent to which teenage girls identify with characters who are worried about the size of their breasts etc.]
This book is one of a series, collectively referred to as Confessions of Georgia Nicholson.
Notice the difference in titles in the two versions below. ‘Perfect Snogging’ seemed better for the movie version, apparently.
Geraldine Brennan describes this book as:
Louise Rennison’s Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series – all 10 laugh-out-loud volumes – is firmly in the my-so-called-life tradition of teenage diary fiction. The tales are for and about girls who are trying to beat puberty into submission, and Rennison understands the need for stimulation, fun and comfort in this age group. Georgia is self-obsessed, melodramatic and boy-crazy but also funny, loyal, and deft with language. She has sensible friends who curb her excesses with kindness, like fun teachers or adventurous aunties. The books are much more substantial than the covers make them appear. Above all, they teach non-acceptance of the adults’ design for living, with laughter the best weapon in the battle for teenage identity.
Humorous books do sell well, though it’s not the case that a kids’ book has to be funny in order to sell. Twilight and Harry Potter are not humorous.
From The Guardian:
Louise Rennison’s teen novel Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging was turned into a smash hit film that made everyone in the whole world cry with laughter. Apart from Americans. But why?
Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a best-selling humorous book for kids. This series contains all the characteristics that make it a good funny book for children:
- everyday high school life
- cartoons (funny by definition)
- situational humour
- good-natured kids who are not the top-dog
The protagonist of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid is deeply flawed — he tries to humiliate his friends to climb higher up the popularity ladder
Kinney says that the reason the books are immensely popular is because everyone’s been to high school and felt the peer pressure. These stories manage to dedramatise this misery. He’s picked a time of life in which characters are deeply self-conscious, wondering what their peers are thinking of them.
A common characteristic of humour: About everyday life and what makes human beings appear less than their best.
Twilight/HP/His Dark Materials are all books about heroic characters, but funny books are all about the human faults. Children can relate to this quite easily.
The humour in kidlit is common to sitcoms for adults. The same rules apply. Characters feel awkward or humiliated. It’s difficult to think of comic heroes who don’t have significant flaws. Georgia Nicholson is obsessed about her looks, a little bit selfish, mean to her friends. Greg is that as well. You would think this is a reason not to like these heroes but in fact children relish these portrayals. They like finding their own weaknesses in comic heroes. [Do these flawed heroes really remind adolescents of themselves? I suspect that would feel too cringe-worthy to enjoy. I suspect they see their friends and school enemies in these characters.]
Age Sensitivities In Children’s Books
You often hear adults say that the jokes are too ‘old’ or too clever — above the comprehension of children. This says more about adults than children, but when a book appeals to both children and adults, the adults tend to say that ‘it’s more for adults really’. Adults appropriate kids’ stuff if they find it appeals to them. [The same thing happened with Harry Potter and the ‘adult’ book covers.] Lauren says that when her father took her younger sister to see Fantastic Mr Fox he said that it was much more of an adults’ film than a kids’ film. He didn’t understand how she got the jokes even though she was laughing along.
[Regarding Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson), I also think it’s for adults, not kids, but not because the kids won’t enjoy it, but because its ironic sexism is sexism nonetheless, and may be taken literally by people who haven’t yet learned irony — whatever age that is. (Some say that’s around age eight.) I explain in full here.]
Types of Humour In Children’s Literature
- Verbal Humour is the one that adults generally think children don’t understand.
- Children are expected to like Gross-out Humour, but not all children (if many) like this. (Poo, toilet humour, underwear, farting, The Mole Who Knew That It Was None Of His Business). It’s assumed that children will laugh at the most basic functions of the human body, and obviously a lot of children do. These are subjects that make people uncomfortable. They’re a little bit taboo (not like sex or anything) but it does have a bit of a cathartic effect. Children seem to enjoy the transgression of it. This humour performs a very specific function. The transgressive nature of this humour is empowering. [The word ‘subversive’ is used here, but I prefer transgressive. Are poo jokes truly ‘subversive’? If so, what do they subvert?]
- Other types of humour can be more problematic in kidlit, from an adult’s point of view. Irony is one example. [I’m one such adult, especially when an unironic interpretation is flatout sexist, or racist (which is far less common these days, though sexism is strangely tolerated.)] One example of a book that plays on irony is Haunted House, which is a very popular pop-up picture book published in the 70s. On every page you find the most terrifying monsters but the verbal text tells a completely different story, about a lovely cozy, safe house. Will young children understand that there can be a gap between the pictures in a book and its text? [No, probably not, though there’s an argument that they’ll need to learn if they’re to become visually literate, which is more and more important in a heavily image based society, full of advertising images everywhere.]
- It’s often said that Parody falls flat unless the audience understands what’s being parodied in the first place. This is not limited to children — it’s true for adults as well, who won’t understand parody unless they know the background. The Willoughbys is a parody of earlier children’s literature, making fun of works such as Little Women and the books by Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess). There is enough humour in the rest of the book for children who haven’t been exposed to this literature. Not everyone gets every joke that a comedian says. It’s never expected that the audience will get every joke.
Can Adult Jokes and Children’s Jokes Co-exist In The Same Work?
David Walliam’s books are about 50/50 adult humour/kid jokes. David Walliams is a British comedian — one half of Little Britain [which most people wouldn’t expose their young kids to]. Clemente remembers not understanding all the jokes in Asterix, a childhood favourite, until she was an adult and realised that the Brits are in the habit of starting sentences with ‘I say’ (which was an oddity in the French translation).
Humour and Translation
Humour doesn’t always transcend cultures. Humour can be harder to sell the foreign rights to, because humour is often so culturally specific. Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging is very English. It’s hilarious that the American edition has to have a glossary with it. A ‘fag’ in England is very different from a fag in America, for example. It’s odd to pick up something light and require a glossary. If a joke needs explaining it’s not as funny. This cultural difference explains why many of the titles of this series had to change.
Clemente read ATaFFS in French and points out that it still worked in translation because of imperialism. While everyone understands British and American humour, the Brits and Americans don’t understand the rest of the world’s humour. [Having grown up in NZ and living in Australia I would agree that the Down Under humour is a bit different from the English and sometimes significantly different from the American, but we do generally really enjoy TV shows and humourous movies from both parts of the world. Did the Americans understand the humour behind Kath and Kim when it was redone for the American audience? No. It fell flat and had poor ratings. It’s safe to say they didn’t get it.]
In successful translations of humour, the humour is not really ‘translated’; it is ‘transposed’. It’s particularly difficult to transpose humour for children and requires much skill.
There are probably books which cannot be successfully translated, for example funny books which relies on rhyme. The Gruffalo doesn’t really take off outside its English language version [because what makes it so good is its rhyme and rhythm.]
Are Funny Books Taken As Seriously?
In 2008 Michael Rosen set up the Roald Dahl Funny Prize to reward authors and books which otherwise get looked over in the major awards.
Funny books are easier to read, garner a wider audience and by definition are not ‘serious’ books, so not ‘taken seriously’. They don’t challenge readers in the same way. This isn’t true, but a common view. The body of scholarship on Pippi Longstocking (very light and funny) in Scandinavian is astonishing. The body of academic work shows that it is taken seriously. It’s one of the few books that challenges authority. This is an example of a classic which, despite its status as a funny book, garners a lot of respect. So maybe things aren’t as bad as they look, and that after a book has acquired status as a classic makes people wonder what is being said about bigger things.
As Heather Scutter comments with regard to jokes in children’s fiction, “apparent subversion may prove, on deconstruction, to mask a form of socialization which actually reinforces existing cultural values and beliefs, and encourages the child [reader] to accept the status quo”.
— Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature by Carolyn Daniel
A list of funny kids’ books suggested by M. Jerry Weiss