Friday 4 May 2018

Funny Bones - can we learn to write 'funny'?

by Addy Farmer

Me, as a crazy kid, having hilarious fun playing pretend tennis
Let me just put you in the picture. I was a funny kid; in fact some of my contemporaries called me, 'weird' which back then I actually took as a compliment, so perhaps case proven. Being a reasonably content weirdo did not make me popular but again, it didn't bother me. I liked the company of a few equally weird friends (See photo above of us playing pretend tennis). Then I had an epiphany. I was in class and it was my turn to go to the Tuck Shop and get sweets for anyone who asked. I took the orders and the money and bought everything on the list - except I didn't because I forgot a particular bar of chocolate for a large girl who always really hungry for this chocolate. She got cross, had a rant, demanded that I went back even though there was not much break left. I panicked and said, "They ran out last week when you ate it all."
Yes, I know, it's not that funny and actually it's rude. BUT everyone laughed. Maybe it was surprise-laughter, I don't know but something changed after that. I began to say out loud what I found funny and people laughed and it felt good. 
funny kid
Back then, being funny was a crowd pleaser and it's a crowd-pleaser for readers now. I love to write funny stuff for children and it made me wonder whether is was a Thing you can learn to do or whether you just had to have funny bones. 

Image result for lissa evans wed wabbitThis is one of my favourite funny books, WED WABBIT by LISSA EVANS. When Fidge and Graham find themselves tumbling down a wabbit hole to a fantasy land whose inhabitants look like colourful dustbins and speak in rhyme. “In Wimbley Land live Wimbley Woos / Who come in many different hues… Yellow are timid, Blue are strong / Grey are wise and rarely wrong …” Their king has been deposed and armies of “Blues” carry out the orders of a scary new dictator called Wed Wabbit. It has some wildly funny characters like Dr Carrot who is an actual carrot who believes he is an actual doctor. Then there's Ella, the toy elephant who believes in the power of positive thinking and is a life coach. "Also available for Voice Development, Audition Technique and Confidence Workshops". And then there is the eponymous Wed Wabbit who is not called Red Rabbit because his owner in the real world is a four year old girl who can't pronounce her 'r's. She also has very strict views on how life should be lived and articulates them through Wed Wabbit. The book is a brilliant look at friendship and fear and it's FUNNY. Why?

  • It's a world ruled by a four year old's toy rabbit. 
  • It's a giant toy rabbit who cannot pronounce her 'r's
  • It's a giant toy rabbit has some anarchic pronouncements

  • The fantasy world is full of toys come impossibly to life but are instantly recognisable as characters from the real world. Their altered state makes them funny
  • Badly done rhyme
"Accept our thanks for everything.
We've come to free our captured king
Restore him to his usual state and afterwards invite everyone round to a really enormous party going on until all hours with mountains of food and drink and sweets to celebrate"

Image result for There a werewolf in my tentPAMELA BUTCHART is a another recent discovery for me. She is the author of funny books for a slightly younger reader. Her books are about a group of very different school friends. Their adventures are set in a real world school but their approach to life make that real world, surreal.  In THERE'S A WEREWOLF IN MY TENT, when Izzy and her friends go on a school camping trip, weird things start happening like howling at night and stolen sausages (a sausage is a comedy foodstuff, like a custard cream). But it's when they see their new teacher's hairy legs that they know that she's a werewolf. Of course, she's a werewolf! Because for an eight year old, it's the obvious explanation.
"I could see by the look in Zach's eye that he KNEW what had made the howling sound and it was BAD.
That's when Zach said, "I have to tell you. There is DANGER among us."
Jodi rolled her eyes because Zach was doing that THING he does when he makes EVERYTHING sound like a FILM and he won't talk like a
Why is this funny?
  • Wild leaps of imagination which our heroes. They make a ridiculous assumption about the teacher being a werewolf
  • Having made the assumption, then finding ways of dealing with werewolves which get them into trouble
  • The way the friends speak to one another is shown through the fonts and pictures 
THE SHRINKING OF TREEHORN by FLORENCE HEIDE PARRY and EDWARD GOREY is a classic. I mention it because it is the mad idea that a boy called Treehorn shrinks. His parents are indifferent to what happens to him rather like the parents in John Burningham's excellent, 'NOT NOW, BERNARD'. At the end of the book, when he is restored to hi normal size, he looks in the mirror

His face was green. His ears were green. His hair was green. He was green all over.
Treehorn sighed. "I don't think I'll tell anyone," he thought to himself. "If I don't say anything, they won't notice."
Image result for the shrinking of treehorn

Why is this funny?
  • The illustrations reflect the restrained story-telling brilliantly
  • Parents will not accept that their son is shrinking in front of their eyes. It allows the reader to shout at them
  • Treehorn's quiet pragmatic approach to a crazy situation is funny
Image result for the shrinking of treehorn

What can we learn about writing funny stories?

  • observe/find some physical tics/behaviour which are plain embarrassing for oneself or in others
  • make your characters oddball but recognisable
  • give your characters reasons to misunderstand one another e.g language/culture/age
  • give them a reason to misunderstand a situation
  • toy with your setting/world 

If your idea of funny is running through a wheatfield then MAY be (I thankyou) you might want to consider another genre.  In the end, you have to write what makes you fire on all cylinders. Most likely, if you find it funny, then your reader will.  Whatever you do, if you want to write funny stories, then read funny stories. Here are some recommendations from the SCBWI hive mind. Enjoy!

Elaine Cline Amelia Bedelia picture books. This was also featured at the scbwi bi conference as one of the children videod shared this book as his favourite. The story does a lot of play on words.

Chloe Taylor Anything by Morris gleitzman especially Bumface. The voice is incredibly strong and the premise is hilarious (a boy whose irresponsible mother keeps having kids juggles looking after his siblings and reminding his mother to take her contraceptive pill when all he wants is a normal childhood.) It's better than it sounds.

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Chloe Taylor Actually no! That's second place! Letters from a mouse by herbie Brennan. You have to read it to understand. It's beautiful and takes about ten minutes to read. Get it! It's funny because the reader knows what is going on but the narrator doesn't.

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Kathryn Evans The Georgia Nicholson books , Angus Thongs etc , ridiculous and truthful and brilliant- kind of slapstick silly but also poignant

Fiona Dunbar Mr Gum. Because every sentence plays around with words in delightfully unexpected ways.

Lucy Courtenay I was going to suggest this too.

Annie Edge Seconding Mr Gum - because it's so damn clever. Good humour isn't just about bums and farts after all (although bums and farts can get you a long way in kidlit!).

BeeBee Taylor Em lynas cant make me go to witch school and Jennifer killick Alex sparrow and the really big stink both are well written light hearted and the jokes are hilarious

Joy Judge Jim Smith wrote (and illustrated) the Future Ratboy series. There were three in total and they all had us all in stitches. My daughters (6 and 4) really enjoyed them and it helped transition my eldest from picture books to chapter books. It’s daft and ...See More

Joy Judge Can I just add that a lot of the books we have at home appeal to the adults as well as the kids. It’s a real sweet spot, as I’m more inclined to buy humour books where some of the jokes are directed at adults. The Supertato PB sets up a scene where an evil pea finds himself on a shopping trolley. He jumps off it and the line ‘but the pea was off his trolley and lying in wait’ gets me every time. 😂

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Lucy Courtenay Mr Gum hits the spot for all ages because it's so gloriously random.

Sheila M. Averbuch TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING for the true-life portrait of a toddler and chaos that ensues with older brother

Victoria Woolfe Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood and Co MG ghost can't beat Stroud for his rapier-sharp wit and intelligent humour. It's worth reading the whole of book three just for the immortal lines, 'egg whisk'. (You'll know it when you read it!)

Maureen LynasMaureen and 13 others manage the membership, moderators, settings, and posts for SCBWI British Isles. I go for voice so Angus, Thongs etc and Noah Can't Even... by Simon James Green. And there's a sequel soon!


  1. Ah ha ha!!!! I haven't read Wed Wabbit - I must amend that tewwible ewwow !!!

  2. I agree that we have to write what we find funny and hope someone else shares our sense of humour. But you can definitely learn to improve your pacing and timing to become a funnier writer. Some great advice here, Addy - thanks!

  3. Great reviews and advice but the best part has to be that baby picture!

  4. I love Not Now Bernard. It was the first pb that ever made me go WHAT!!!


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