Philip Ardagh (the tall one) with Alison Green (the other one)
Philip Ardagh, author of Grubtown Tales, says he is incapable of going through a day without finding something funny.
Which is just as well because he is the winner of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize for 2009, a prize founded by former Children's laureate Michael Rosen as part of his campaign to put the fun back into reading.
"I have sat on judging panels before and what happens is that the funny books get squeezed out, because somehow or other they don't tackle big issues in the proper way ... They'll get through to the last four or five books, and then historical fiction, or something about death or slavery or new technology will win out. I think it's a great shame, because actually when I think about the books I remember from childhood they are the funny books." Read Guardian pieceThe LBF panel was intended to discuss the value of the prize and it's impact on children's publishing but almost descended into a beautiful beard competition between Ardagh, also known as 'Beardy', and illustrator Chris Riddel, who sported an elegantly trimmed two tone stubble.
John O'Farrell (comedy writer and author of May Contain Nuts and I Have a Bream) opened the proceedings by apologizing for the non-appearance of some panellists due to the UK flight ban. Luckily, Barack Obama (ha ha) was swiftly replaced by the educator Prue Goodwin of the University of Reading.
Also on the panel was Alison Green (Scholastic's Alison Green Books), now stalked by picture book writers all over the UK after she edited the wildly successful The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson.
Surprisingly, despite being the author of books with titles like Stinking Rich and Just Plain Stinky, Ardagh claimed he wasn't a fan of "willy-bum-poo humour" and "unrequited wax - "about earwax and ghastly things like that". He did however wax lyrical about beards, citing Roald Dahl nominee Anne Fine's Eating Things on Sticks which featured a Best Beard on the Island Competition.
"Although there is some poo in certain books I publish we keep it to a minimum," Alison Green responded. She then showed a slide from one of her most popular books Ellyphant Wellyphant by Nick Sharratt, nominated in 2008, in which pulling the elephant's tale released a fart. Although the book utilized many gags, it's the tail-fart gag that has been shown to have the most appeal.
Asked what the difference was between adult books and children's books, Chris Riddell answered, "The big difference between adult and children’s authors is that adult authors are scary and children’s authors are approachable and beat me in beard competitions."
Audiences expect different things of children's authors though ... especially funny children's authors. At one of Philip Ardagh's publicappearances, organizers decided to hire a clown. "If I were PD James, would they bring out a corpse?" he said.
The Roald Dahl prize came about because it was felt that funny books often didn't make it to the cut in the big book prizes. Says Prue Goodwin, "We tend to imagine that a sense of humour is trivial in our lives – and yet it is a far deeper aspect of what we think and of our personalities."
And yet the popularity of funny books - and their authors - cannot be doubted. Chris Riddell recounts the story of being asked to stand in for Louise Rennison (Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging) at his daughter's school. He invited his co-author in The Edge Chronicles Paul Stewart to appear alongside him.
There we were two middle aged men. We said "What you don’t realize is that Louise Rennison is a pseudonym " – and the row of excited faces fell.The Roald Dahl Prize raises the profile of funny books. Says Philip Ardagh: "It does get people thnking about humour and books"
The Funny Prize is named after much loved author Roald Dahl whose funny books never won a prize, possibly, as Ardagh puts it, because it was "not about harrowing and beautiful autistic child soldiers in Angola."