I had thought the Roald Dahl Funny Prize was on a break, ready to return in 2016 as part of the Roald Dahl centenary celebrations, bigger and better than ever. But now it seems that won’t happen.
This upset me for a number of reasons:
- My kids and I have found some of our favourite authors on Roald Dahl Funny Prize shortlists – Frank Cottrell Boyce, Andy Stanton, Philip Ardagh, Louise Rennison, Anthony McGowan, Jo Nadin, Philip Reeve, Josh Lacey, Jim Smith and Holly Smale, to name but a (brilliant) few.
- I remember Michael Rosen launching the prize when he was Children’s Laureate and I was an English teacher. His explanation for setting up the prize made complete sense then, and still makes sense now:
‘I did this because funny books often get overlooked when it comes to prizes. It’s usually felt that they should reward serious books. My own view is that many funny books tackle serious issues in a funny way, and that being funny is one extremely good way to engage children’s interest in reading.’
- It was a prize that celebrated and identified the books children really love, the books they choose for themselves – and if we want to raise a generation who love reading this has to be a good thing
- Finally, I’m a huge fan of Roald Dahl’s work (Matilda and The Witches are among my favourite books ever written) – I love the madness, the mischief, the eccentricity, the darkness, the sense of fair play, the ability to make the ordinary extraordinary, and all the other intangible things that keep these books at the top of the bestseller lists. This prize always seemed like something he’d have liked. But, sadly, it is no more.
When I googled to see what I could learn about the decision, I found a Bookseller interview, in which Luke Kelly, M.D. of the Dahl estate, said the prize would not be awarded again because it didn’t fit in with the estate’s plans for next year’s centenary celebrations (2016 marks 100 years since Dahl’s birth). Mr Kelly was quoted as saying,
‘The Roald Dahl Funny Prize has served its purpose brilliantly.’
The wonderful Non Pratt summed up my feelings exactly when she responded with:
‘Hmph. Its purpose was the *ongoing* celebration of humour in kidlit.’
She wasn’t the only author to feel this way. A twitter-load of writers and illustrators joined a battle cry to find a new sponsor, and Jonathan Emmett shared a chart from Scholastic’s fifth “Kids & Family Reading Report” to demonstrate how important humour is when kids are choosing books to read.
The timing of the announcement bothered me too. I’ve started to feel like the world is losing its sense of humour. The images on the news make you want to cry rather than laugh, and it’s getting harder and harder to see the funny side of world events (with a few notable recent exceptions involving people in high places that are perhaps best not referred to here). This is exactly the time we need to be celebrating funny books and funny writers. The books (and people) that make us laugh most are often those full of hilariously subversive ideas, which can help us make sense of our increasingly nonsensical world. And if they can’t help us make sense of things, they can at least help us laugh at them.
Only last week I posted a blog about how much I love silliness and laughter. In it, I explained how chats I’ve had with young readers at book events, and over email, have shown me how important humour is to them. I’ve heard brilliant tales about how losing themselves in funny books helps kids muddle through otherwise miserable days, reminding me of times when it did the same for me.
Perhaps ironically, in that blog, I said I was thrilled people were increasingly recognising that books don’t have to be worthy to be worthwhile. ‘Reading for Pleasure’ was introduced to the UK curriculum in 2014 and, as I said in my post, if I were choosing a book to read for pleasure, nine times out of ten I’d choose a funny book. Maybe that tenth time I’d choose a serious literary tome, but probably only if someone was watching!
Funny books are A GOOD THING. So I’m thrilled so many of my favourite writers and illustrators have voiced their disappointment that the prize is no more, and I hope that soon, perhaps even by the time you read this, they’ll have found a new sponsor and the prize will have been resurrected.
I’m also excited to hear that Michael Rosen is currently investigating the possibility of an annual ‘Funny Books Event’. Fingers and funny bones crossed. That would be a great thing to come out of this.
In the meantime, I shall be trying to do more to support the ‘This Book Is Funny’ campaign, which you can learn more about at http://www.thisbookisfunny.com. The aim is to celebrate the humour in children’s books by reviewing and promoting books by the funniest writers, illustrators and comic artists around. With that in mind, I thought I’d include 3 mini-reviews here, which I wrote a while ago, for three of my favourite books
The Confessions of Georgia Nicholson series, by Louise Rennison
Louise Rennison taps into that never-ending fountain of teenage mirth, misery and awkwardness that Sue Townsend identified decades earlier with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole 13¾. Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging is probably her best known book, in which Georgia’s dilemmas include how to replace accidentally shaved-off eyebrows; how to cope with Angus, her small labrador-sized Scottish wildcat; her first kiss with Peter – afterwards known as Whelk Boy; and the fact that she went to a party dressed as a stuffed olive. If slapstick humour is your thing then this is perfect.
Geek Girl series, by Holly Smale
Holly Smale creates compelling characters, who are smart, funny, lovable and frequently idiotic and then develops relationships between them that make you long to be in their gang. She’s also a master at the comedy set piece:
‘You left a multipack of Mars Bars on top of your wardrobe. Can I have one? Dad x
I had three. Hope that’s OK. Dad x
I’m just going to have one more. Dad x
Harriet, your Dad’s made himself sick on an entire multipack of Mars Bars again. Please don’t leave sweets where we can find them. A x’
The truly tea-spitting guffaw came, for me, during the ‘T-Rex hands’ scene in Model Misfit. The ‘second-rate dinosaur’ comparisons are comedy gold, and I frequently find myself making little involuntary clawing movements at my family as a result.
The Bubble Wrap Boy by Phil Earle
The Bubble Wrap Boy is the brilliant tale of clumsy, klutzy Charlie Han (‘Tiny Charlie from the Chinese chippy) and his quest to find the special something that will turn him ‘from an ewok to . . . I don’t know, Yoda?’ Charlie’s thing turns out to be an extraordinary talent for skateboarding, which is an unfortunate coincidence, given his overprotective mother’s paranoia about risk. I loved the exchanges between mother and son. “Imagine Shawshank with shoutier guards,” he declares. The Bubble Wrap Boy is a brilliant book that uses the lightest touch to get you thinking about deeply important subjects, leaving you happy but slightly soggy around the eyes.
You can find other reviews of funny books on our review site, Book Walrus, written by me and by some of my young friends. Here are a few of my favourites:
Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, The Milk, reviewed by Dylan, age 9 (described by Neil Gaiman as ‘the best review ever’)
Keep celebrating the funny!
I tried to find a comprehensive list of past winners but the Book Trust links I usually follow seem to have disappeared, so here is a great 2012 list from Hounslow libraries that includes all but the 2013 finalists, which you can see in a Telegraph article here. (Please let me know if you have a link that includes them all and I’ll amend accordingly)
Rachel Hamilton is a graduate of both Oxford University and Cambridge University and has put her education to good use by working in an ad agency, a secondary school, a building site and a men’s prison. Her interests are books, films, stand-up comedy and cake, and she loves to make people laugh, especially when it’s intentional rather than accidental.
Her books include Unicorn in New York (OUP, due for release in 2016), The Case of the Exploding Brains (Simon & Schuster, 2015) and The Case of the Exploding Loo (Simon & Schuster, 2014), which was nominated for the Redbridge Children’s Award, Leeds Book Award and won the Worcestershire Awesomest Book Award.
She has been nominated for Emirates Woman of the Year 2015 and would be huuuuugely grateful if you wanted to take a moment to vote for her here