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Writing Humor for Children
by Kathryn Lay

One of the main things I’ve found when doing school visits is that kids love to laugh. I know that I do.

When I began writing my middle-grade novel, CROWN ME! I knew right away that I wanted it to be a funny book. Although it deals with leadership and friendship, my intent was to make it fun.

But writing humor for children involves more than sitting down at the computer and telling jokes. Humor in books and short stories comes in many forms.

SLAPSTICK:

What happens when a kid who has been crowned king for two weeks in a medieval history class project is challenged by the class bully for right to rule? A bicycle joust, of course. As I began plotting CROWN ME! I made a list of medieval-type scenes and events to include in the book that I could twist and turn in a modern way.

The bicycle joust scene had to be physical comedy. Two boys on a bicycle, dressed in armor made of pillows and foil and football helmets, wielding bathroom plungers instead of lances as their classmates surrounded them and cheered them on in battle. They missed one another. They fell. The main character’s plunger got stuck on his adversary’s bottom. The Three Stooges doesn’t appeal to everyone, but slapstick is a popular form of humor for kid readers.

HUMOR IN CHARACTERIZATION AND VOICE:

Kids love quirky characters and a voice that looks at life slightly askew.

Even when the story idea isn’t one you normally think of as funny, a strong and quirky voice can change the impact of that story.

In CROWN ME! Whiny Willy just popped up as a very minor character, but quickly became my main character’s weird sidekick. Willy became the perfect follower, annoying at times but always ready to get Justin more attention…and into more trouble.

In STORKY: HOW I LOST MY NICKNAME AND WON THE GIRL by Debra Garfinkle, voice plays a major role in the humor of her YA novel. "My sweet, naVve character has a take on a world that is somewhat skewed by his unique voice, yet in a believable way."

FANTASTICAL HUMOR:

Humor in fantasy and science fiction combines the popularity of both genres. Bruce Coville has made a solid career from his humorous fantasy and science fiction novels. Alien teachers, a strange magical shop that sells talking toads and truthful skulls, and a hunchbacked hero who lives in a castle and carries a teddy bear.

When you can laugh at your own writing, you’ve found success as a humor writer. Bruce says, "A particular funny scene where I staged a food fight in MONSTER OF THE YEAR made me laugh every time I read it, even through all the stages of editing and proofing."

Consider the burly and sometimes funny character of Hagrid in the HARRY POTTER books, such as his dialogue of "I shouldn’t have said that" when mentioning the Fluffy, three-headed guard dog.

WORD PLAY:

I had fun coming up with ‘medieval’ type words for my fifth grade boy characters to insult one another. My whiny knight was referred to as ‘Knight of the Living Dead,’ and when clanking along in his armor of a metal trashcan, ‘Sir Trash-a-Lot.’

POTTY HUMOR:

Bruce Coville tells writers that if we use the word underwear in a story, it’ll be a hit. Young kids love humor that uses forbidden or tacky-sounding words or ideas.

Bookstore shelves include WALTER THE FARTING DOG, CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS, SNOT STEW, and THE UNDERWEAR THAT CROSSED THE ROAD.

One of my favorite short stories I ever sold was Underwear on Parade. What does a kid do when everyone in class will be bringing their collections to share at school? What if you collect jockey shorts? How will you display it? With more than 20 pair worn over his shorts and hidden by a raincoat, the title and idea lent itself to little boy humor as the main character ‘dropped his shorts’ one by one.

HUMOR IN REVISION:

When I began plotting CROWN ME! I intended it to be funny from the beginning, yet I found that making specific scenes laugh-out-loud funny were done mostly during revision time.

In my first revision letter, my editor suggested that I look at some of the humorous situations my characters "talked about doing" and showed them doing it. My character mentioned that the class’ dungeon had grown in size, with more kids and desks inside than outside the dungeon. But I had not shown how those kids got there. I went back during revision and showed in scene some of the absurd situations where my king and queen sent their classmates to the dungeon.

Writing humor, even when it comes naturally, often needs to be rethought as you work to find the true laughter of the piece. Dotti Enderle says that, "When writing THE COTTON CANDY DISASTER AT THE TEXAS STATE FAIR, I looked at the ‘big’ picture. What possible havoc could an out-of-control cotton candy machine cause at a highly populated state fair ground?"

Some say that humor writing for children isn’t taken seriously. I hope not. I want my readers to laugh.

© Copyright 2005, Kathryn Lay

Kathryn Lay is the author of 26 books for children, over 2000 articles, essays and stories for children and adults and the book from AWOC.COM Publishing, The Organized Writer is a Selling Writer. Check out her website at www.kathrynlay.com and email through rlay15@aol.com

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