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We Need Funny Books to Ease Children’s Stress, says Michael Rosen

Comedy can let children in on the secret but absurd side of authority figures, and allow them to laugh at themselves without being aware of it, says Michael Rosen…

Michael Rosen
by Michael Rosen
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When I was a child, some of my favourite books and pieces of writing were funny. Whenever I think of why or how funny books appeal to children I think back to how much humorous books were a springboard for me to read.

I was born in 1946, so my taste in humour was very much of that era: a character called Harris Tweed who appeared in the Eagle comic, the Beano, the Billy Bunter stories, the Professor Branestawm, Jennings and Molesworth books.

There was a special pleasure that came with the experience of my brother reading me these in our bedroom in the mornings at the weekend.

As with many modern comic books, Jennings and Bunter were reinvented for us as audio on Children’s Hour on the radio or on children’s TV. As a result of these inputs, the scenes, jokes, dialogue and plot-lines have lasted all my life.

Particularly strong in those books, and in books today, are the ways in which people in positions of power or with (supposedly) great knowledge are made to look ridiculous.

Probably, teachers in those days were much more forbidding and so the small downfall of a suited, begowned ‘master’ was a great relief.

Relief is one key element in how humour works. The Beano could be guaranteed to deliver up one of these relief-moments at least once a week while the Molesworth books represent many ways in which the power of teachers are unpacked and decoded for a young audience.

Comedy can often play the role of letting you in on the secret but absurd side of authority figures.

My brother took the Molesworth books one step further by mapping the cast of characters at St Custard’s on to the teachers at Harrow Weald County Grammar School.

It was almost as if the author Geoffrey Willans and artist Ronald Searle didn’t just know the secrets of Molesworth: they knew the details of our daily life.

Jennings and Bunter offered more of this personal approach. Like William’s activities in the William books, they’re full of furtive, illegal, ridiculous and over-ambitious projects that go wrong.

This enabled us to laugh at ourselves without our being aware of it.

These boys’ projects were exaggerated versions of the minor tricks and jokes that we got up to – or if not us, then someone we knew.

The books gave us a chance to laugh at something very much to do with our own psyches. This intimacy is another part of the comedy repertoire.

In on the joke

Another dimension came with the Winnie the Pooh books. As has been noticed many times, these are deceptively simple. On the surface they are simply the very small imagined adventures of a boy with his soft toys – a form of whimsical dramatic play.

In fact, each of these adventures can be taken as a little philosophical fable about such things as truth, friendship, knowledge and the like.

None of this would be at all funny if AA Milne hadn’t set up the stories in such a way that even very young children are given the satisfaction of knowing more of what’s going on than the characters: a juvenile form of dramatic irony!

Whether it’s the search for the Heffalump, Eeyore’s birthday present, or the Pooh-Piglet-getting-lost episode, the reader knows the errors of the characters: another important aspect of comedy.

A satisfying aspect of humour comes when the story appears to flatter readers by encouraging them to feel a bit superior.

I can remember walking to school with my friend Brian and the pair of us would revisit the stories, laughing at how ridiculous Pooh and Piglet were in that they didn’t realise they were just going round and round in circles or that Pooh with the jar of honey stuck on his head wasn’t really a Heffalump.

These pleasures and satisfactions aren’t trivial. Of course, books which tackle problems and difficult issues whether psychological or social are important and necessary.

The book industry along with various parts of the library and educational services acknowledge these books with awards and prizes.

When I was Children’s Laureate (2007-2009) it slowly grew on me that as a collective, we had no means of acknowledging the power and usefulness of funny books.

Every year, hundreds of books appear which children find funny. One major role model of these – Roald Dahl – broke new ground by giving us a cast of grotesque and gross adults who are often defied and defeated by resourceful children.

Dahl knew that he was appealing to something deep, if not always acknowledged by children or parents: that the relationship between child and caring adult is a complicated mesh of love, resentment, defiance, control, and rebellion.

He was fully aware that through exaggeration he was giving voice to this often concealed stream of emotions. Many authors since have picked up on the comic potential in exploring these feelings.

This reminds us that children are surrounded with taboos, restrictions, regulations, timetables, conventions, orders, commands and the like. The world is not of their making.

Such a system of control offers writers and illustrators a wonderfully fertile ground for mockery, exaggeration, subversion and farce.

Within the confines of a book, chaos can erupt and for that moment the child can find relief from order: the world doesn’t seem quite as fixed as usual.

The physical act of laughter involves a release of energy, a muscular exhalation of breath and humour in children’s books involves a mental release too.

Funny story…

Since my time as Laureate I’ve been keen to find ways in which we can celebrate this long tradition in the here and now.

The Laugh Out Loud awards (the ‘Lollies’) do just that. They provide a focal point for authors, illustrators, publishers, teachers, librarians, booksellers and adult carers which in turn serves the interests of the child readers.

The prize creates a buzz and many talking points about humour, children and – yes – literacy.

You might never know from the great sheaves of documents that come from many of the experts on reading that there’s nothing better for fostering in a child the desire to read, than a book that a child wants to read!

Of course, this may well be a book full of emotions other than humour but let’s acknowledge and celebrate that when the giggling takes over, reading becomes intensely pleasurable.

Michael Rosen (@MichaelRosenYes) is head judge of the Laugh Out Loud awards (the Lollies) created especially to celebrate the very funniest and most engaging books in children’s fiction.

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