One of the weird things about children’s books is the way they suddenly stop being funny. By which I mean that if you look at books aimed at young people, under the age of, say 11, 90 per cent of them will be – or try to be – funny.
Then we enter the realm of Y/A, where vampires stalk, and zombies stump; where life becomes grim and dangerous, where knife crime, facial disfigurement, cancer, and death, dog the footsteps of teenagers: a dark, hulking figure, swishing about their heads with a scythe.
Teenagers laugh? Frankly, they’d rather die.
At least that’s the impression given by the majority of Y/A lit. (And I know this is an exaggeration –the girlsheartbooks gang is packed with very funny writers for teenagers, and I’m co-writing a book with another, Joanna Nadin – who can ‘do’ funny as brilliantly as she can ‘do’ sad. But the trend is plain enough as soon as you go into any bookshop: the funny-sad ratio gets flipped when you hit 13.)
And yet those teenage years, for most people, although certainly difficult and full of challenges and complexity, are saturated with laughter, absurd scrapes, and joyful friendships.
So why do the numbers change as books get older, the funny giving way to the sad?
One reason is that it’s quite easy to make young readers laugh. Stick some underpants on a dinosaur, insert a few gusts of flatulence, some bogies, then have the baddie fall face-first into some poo (ideally dinosaur poo), and bingo.
Older children are a little trickier and more demanding. They are socially sophisticated, and linguistically adept – as any parent outsmarted and out-talked by their precocious 12-year-old daughter can confirm. It’s much easier to be dark and gloomy, as a writer, than it is to sparkle with wit. And so the temptation is to follow the easy path, the path of darkness.
And, heaven knows, I’ve done it myself – The Knife that Killed Me – a movie of which is going to be released sometime soon – is exactly the kind of grim and tragic tale I’ve been talking about.
But in my other books for teenagers – and younger readers in the 9-12 range – I’ve tried as hard as I can to make my readers both laugh and think. Over the next few blogs I’m writing for girlsheartbooks, I plan to talk about some of the ways I try to be funny. But I thought I’d begin with what is the commonest way, for me.
Embarrassment looms large in my life. I’m always doing and saying embarrassing things, things that make me slap my head in despair at my own stupidity, and want to curl up in the corner emitting a high-pitched keening noise. Which would, of course, also be embarrassing…
So I try to make a virtue out of this failing. Whenever something awkward or humiliating happens to me, I think, ‘How can I use this? Which fictional character can I inflict it on?’
Very often, over the past few years, it’s been Dermot Milligan, the overweight but, I hope, rather loveable, hero of the Donut Diaries series. Perhaps an example might help to illustrate my point.
One of my little habits is to doodle on bananas with a biro. It’s a curiously satisfying thing to do – something about the sensation of writing on the firm, but slightly yielding skin is particularly enjoyable. I sometimes draw faces, and sometimes write meaningless bits of gibberish.
Anyway, a couple years ago I was working in the British Library, and I’d brought a banana in there with me, meaning to eat it as a mid-morning snack. Fishing around for my pencil in my pocket (they don’t let you take pens into the British Library in case you run amok and deface the priceless volumes), I took out my banana and placed it on the desk, a little to my right.
When I’d finally got myself sorted I looked at the banana, and saw what I’d written on it that morning. I’d been thinking how much I loved bananas, and so I wrote ‘I love you’ on it, and drew a little heart.
Then I noticed the man sitting next to me. He was also looking at the banana, and then he glanced at me, a worried expression on his face. It must have looked for all the world like I was sending him a tender love message, by means of banana. I made some kind of apologetic noise, and then hurriedly ate the banana, which got me thrown out of the library, for breaking the no-eating rule.
It was too good a humiliation to waste and so Chapter Three of the second Donuts Diaries book, Revenge is Sweet, features a very similar scene, with a fair degree of escalation and embarrassment added. Thus life’s little traumas become words on the page.
More about my own personal fiascos and their literary manifestations next time…