Go Big Or Go Home with The Funny by @jason_kirschner and #GIVEAWAY

Not too long ago,  I was talking to a fellow author about a beautifully poetic manuscript that a friend had written. I commented that I could never have written something so lyrical. She turned to me and said “That’s not what you do. You do funny.”

Kirschner_diagramIt was a bit of a revelation. I really love and admire those almost songlike 100-word-or-less manuscripts that are super popular right now. But that’s not what I do  well. I do funny. And once I leaned in to that, it became much easier and more fun to write. It should have been obvious. I’ve worked on late night comedy shows for almost two decades—not as a writer but as a designer. But that sensibility seeps into your consciousness. You tend to look at things a little sideways to find the funny in it.

So given my skewed view of the world,  I try to write things that make me laugh and hope that kids will laugh along with me.  For me, it’s virtually guaranteed because, as my wife will tell you, I am essentially an 8-year-old boy.

But I understand that funny isn’t easy. To that end I’ve been working for several months on a prototype of a machine that helps infuse comedy into a manuscript.  I call it the Fun-E-Tron 6950 and it gives you access to my favorite seven satire supplies.

Word Choice

Certain words just sound funny.  Like “persnickity”. I love that word. Ooh..or “bumfuzzle.” Why would anyone ever write “confuse” when they could write “bumfuzzle.” I would always rather write “blubber” than “cry”.  I also like the word “squeegee” but you never see one in a picture book.

Exaggeration

It’s not real life—it’s picture books. When your 5-year-old character is having a hissy fit (more great words) and screams, have her blow the roof off the joint. Literally. The rules of physics don’t apply here. Don’t build a sorta tall sandcastle—build a tower that touches the clouds. Go big or go home.

Understatement

You can also go the other way. If your character does blow the roof off her house and it crumbles to bits, it gets even funnier if the text reads something understated like “She might have caused a bit of damage.”

Visual Gags/Slapstick

Obviously both of these will rely heavily on your best friend, The Illustrator, but it all starts in your script. It’s up to you to set up situations where “physical comedy” can take place. Someone somewhere wrote scripts for The Three Stooges. (I bet in real life, Moe was a pussycat.) And even though The Stooges were the ones that executed the comedy, a scenario was written down in a script for them to follow. Likewise, an illustrator can execute what you’ve initiated for them. The same goes for visual gags— large guys named “Tiny” for instance. Gets me every time.

Puns 

OMG, do I love puns. Jokes that play on the fact that different words sound the same are perfect for picture books. My son loves them too but he’d never admit it publicly. Once, in the market, I made a joke about nacho cheese being “not your cheese” (say it fast) and he laughed for hours. I love that moment when we’re reading together and we come across a pun. Sometimes I can actually see the wheels turning in his head until he gets it and lets out a loud guffaw (yet another great word.) Once he understands it, he feels like he’s in on the joke and that’s a great feeling. Be punny.

Repetition

Repeating similar scenarios throughout your book is a great way to infuse some humor.  In comedy, there’s usually a rule of threes. Repeating a line or event three times can build a scenario where you can either meet expectations on that third go-round or defy expectations which can be hilarious. Another great use of repetition is the “callback” where an earlier phrase or event can be used as a punchline later in the book. A good callback is the best.

Fart Jokes

Not much of an explanation needed here. Farts are funny to anyone less than eight years old or anyone with a Y chromosome.

Kirschner_bookcoverMy challenge to you is to take a look at your latest manuscript and see how many of these tools you’re using. Then adjust the dials on the different comedy contraptions available to you depending on the story you’re trying to tell. Use some or all of them—if you think you can handle it. Some of them will require a great illustrator to help execute them but there’s no reason you can’t provide the setup in your script. Use them wisely and be funny. And the next time you see someone holding cheese that’s not theirs you walk right up and tell them “That’s nacho cheese.” (Callback. Nailed it.)

KirschnerJ_headshotJason Kirschner is a set designer for television with credits that include Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Late Show with David Letterman.  He’s also the author and illustrator of Mr. Particular: The World’s Choosiest Champion from Sterling which you can now find in bookstores everywhere. See more of Jason’s work at jasonkirschner.com. Follow him on Twitter by clicking HERE.

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Jason’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area—only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

GIVEAWAY! Jason is kindly giving away a copy of Mr Particular. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

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Slapstick and Subtlety: Yes, Please by @cordellmatthew

One of the greatest misconceptions about children’s picture books is that these are books with pictures that are meant for children. This is simply not true. I would agree that, obviously, a significant amount of eyes and ears and hands (some might say noses and even tongues) that are devouring these books belong to children. But, in truth, picture book readership is also significantly adult. Librarians, teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, big brothers and sisters, neighbors, good Samaritans, adults who love picture books (like me)… Well, you get the, uh… picture. (oof) So, if a picture book writer is in no way considering the adult in the picture book reading scenario, then that writer is doing his or herself and the adult picture book readers of the world a disservice.

This presents one of the most challenging aspects of crafting a successful picture book: writing and illustrating a book that can satisfy two vastly different minds. A child and an adult. If the story and art are unbalanced and tip too far in one direction, then the whole thing is thrown off. If a picture book is detested by an adult—by perhaps skewing TOO much for the child—then chances are, that book will not be acquired by the adult gatekeeper (if you will) in the picture book reading scenario. It will not be bought or checked out or read (certainly not re-read), dooming it from the get-go. On the other hand, you may have a book an adult is wild about in some adult-y way. But If the book is too sophisticated—skewing too far for the adult—then it will go over the child’s head and will be pushed aside, forgotten, or… worse. (Hell hath no fury like a disregarded kid.)

There are many things to consider when making a book that is appreciated by adult and child, but let’s pick one and tease that out a bit. Humor. I feel like—generally speaking… you know… not selling anyone short—kids often respond to humor that is presented in broad strokes. Slapstick comedy. Slipping on banana peels, farts, getting kicked in the butt, pratfalls, etc. (um… all things I’ve plugged into my books at some point or another.) But if you ask me, a cover-to-cover book of this is doomed to fail. Ask me sometime about my abandoned manuscript involving a lactose intolerant unicorn. Yes, some adults share these same humorous sensibilities (or some might say lack thereof), but a lot of adults are savvy to a more subtle brand of humor: witty, dry, and even a dash of sarcasm here and there could do wonders to even out the scale. A lot of that very well might go over the heads of our kiddos—particularly the younger set—but the older kids may get it and if it’s done right, it won’t matter if the young ones don’t pick up on every single joke. So, how do we do it right? We do it all.

I’d like to use my picture book, ANOTHER BROTHER, to provide some examples of how weaving together big and less big moments of humor might lead us all down the same path to some laughs.

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To set the stage a little, the book is about family of sheep that starts small: Two parents and one child. But things escalate quickly, turning this family into parents with—get this—13 children! I mean… already funny, right?? (And already, with a kinda blink-and-you-missed-it grown-up joke. Remember when “cloning” first entered serious conversation with Dolly the sheep?)

In opening things up, I establish how important only-child Davy is to Mom and Dad. There’s a bit of humor here, but it’s mostly setting the stage info, so the humor is kept subtle and dry. (tender ballad, wooly masterpiece=sock, etc.)

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As the story and pages turn, Davy gets a brother. The humor and language is paralleled but amped up more for slapstick-y kid laffs! (pukes, farts, etc.) Looking at this page, there’s something else I’d like to point out. Sometimes it’s better to let the pictures do the heavy lifting when it comes to slapstick. It can make it a bit more… tasteful?

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As the story progresses and the family grows (and quickly it does), there is a wildly climactic and mostly wordless spread of the multitude of things the now 12 brothers are doing to annoy Davy. You see, they copy him endlessly. I tried to combine both subtle moments of humor here with over-the-top/knock-you-over-the-head ones.

 

 

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Moving on, Davy’s brothers mature somewhat and decide to start doing their own things. Ergo: they leave him completely and sadly alone. This brings me to one of my favorite moments in the book. Davy misses the company of his brothers and is trying to reconnect in various ways. He wants to do and like the same things they do, but nothing is lining up. For instance, their distinct preferences in television.

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The inspiration here being those kids’ shows out there that are well-meaning but are out and out CREEPY. (Think TELETUBBIES.) I’d thought kids would pick up on this, but at school visits (depending on the audience and time of day) the kids are usually quiet on this spread. I do, however, always hear some light snickering from the adults in the room.

And finally (spoiler alert!) things are resolved when Davy gets a sister who adores him and copies his every move. On the end page, we’ve got a nice tapestry of sweetness and humor—of both slapstick and subtle varieties.

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Picture book humor is not “go big or go home.” I think we’d be selling kids short by thinking that and also neglecting the adults who will be in on the experience. But it certainly can’t be “play it cool, hipster” either. (I just made up that expression.) Perhaps if we, picture book makers, can go into it with both eyes open, we might be off on the right foot. Just watch out for that banana peel.

TAKEAWAYS:

• Write picture books not just for kids, but also for the adults who love and read them too.

• Vary the way humor is used in your book, so both kids and grown-ups can be satisfied.

• Always be funny. Even if just a little bit.

CordellM_headshotMatthew Cordell has illustrated many books for children including Special Delivery by Philip C. Stead, a Washington Post best book of 2015. He is the author and illustrator of several picture books including Trouble Gum, Another Brother, Wish, and Hello! Hello!, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book. Matthew lives outside of Chicago with his wife, author Julie Halpern, and their two children. Visit him online at matthewcordell.com, find him on Twitter @cordellmatthew or on Facebook facebook.com/cordellmatthew

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The Importance of an Exploding Sandwich by @JulieFalatko and GIVEAWAY

Has this ever happened to you? You come up with an amazing idea for a story. Let’s say it’ssnappsy about a boy who wants a dog, and all the things he does to convince his parents to get him a dog. You work on it, revise it, make it better. You’re feeling pretty good about Ben and the Dog Campaign. And then you’re standing in a bookstore and, under a cloud of dread, you pick up Bob Lobbies for a Dog. It’s essentially the same as your story.

Or maybe you don’t even get that far. Maybe you write Ben and the Dog Campaign and even though you love it, there’s a funny feeling in your stomach when you read it. A feeling that says, “This is kind of flat.”  A feeling that says: “So what?”

And let me tell you this: you never want to think, “So what?” after reading a story.

You, my friend, need an exploding sandwich.

Don’t hide behind that bush! It’s a metaphorical exploding sandwich. All I mean is that you need a surprise, and not a something-jumps-out surprise so much as an aliens-fly-down-and-luckily-make-amazing-tuna-salad surprise. Something that says “that is great” instead of “so what?”

So many picture books can be grouped into the same category. Pet-wanting books, difficult-bedtime books, first-day-of-school books, moving-to-a-new-house books. There’s a reason for all those books. Kids do want pets. They don’t want to go to bed.

You can absolutely write a book in one of these categories, but you want yours to stand out. You don’t want an agent or editor to read the pitch for your book and unsuccessfully suppress a yawn. Which would you read first?

Ben wants a dog, but his mom says no way. Ben shows her he’s responsible by putting out food twice a day, walking himself around the block, and brushing the couch. All his hard work pays off, and in the end his parents take him to the shelter to pick out his new best friend! Kids will learn the value of hard work. For fans of literally every boring pet picture book ever.

Ben wants a dog, but his mom says no way. So Ben builds a Rube Goldberg device to free all the dogs from the pound and lure them to his backyard. Surely his mom won’t be able to resist all those cute furry faces? But when things go horribly awry, Ben is left with a surprising new best friend: an octopus. For fans of Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, Sophie’s Squash, Cecil the Pet Glacier, and Sparky.

You might ask: how? I’ve found the best way to do this, and also add a lot of humor to your story, is to start mashing things up.

Do you have two stories that aren’t quite working? Smush them together. Maybe you have a bedtime story that’s kind of dull, and a story about a loud robot that you can’t find an ending for. Mash those two together. I know they have nothing in common, except always remember that they have you in common, which is not a small thing. So you make a story where bedtime doesn’t go well because that robot is just so loud. That’ll stand out much more on the shelf, and it’ll be funnier too.

I had the hardest time with revisions on my picture book The Society of Underrepresented Animals. My editor and I had been working to make it better, but it still had a small nagging “so what?” feeling. In desperation, I wrote five different versions of the story with very different plots. None of those was quite right either, though. So I smushed the best parts of them together, and that’s what finally worked.

You don’t even have to do it with the whole story, you can just throw in a few small exploding sandwiches. Make a park bench wearing sneakers deliver sage advice. Have one boy carry a tuba around everywhere. Change a character into a kitten who dreams of running her own popsicle truck franchise. The key is to be silly, surprising, and memorable. And the real trick is to make it work for your book. I bet, though, that once you tell your brain you want an exploding sandwich, suddenly you’ll see how that makes the story come together. That boy with the tuba? He uses it to call to the elephant who runs to the tree and saves Popsicle Kitten, who got stuck up there dreaming of new flavors for her Catsicle fleet. Or whatever. Your brain likes fun. Your brain likes surprises. Your brain will be delighted by the challenge and will have fun connecting the dots.

And so will readers.

FalatkoJ_headshotJulie Falatko debut picture book is Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book), illustrated by Tim Miller (Viking). She is also the author of The Society of Underrepresented Animals, illustrated by Charles Santoso (Viking, 2018), and Help Wanted: One Rooster(Viking, 2019).

You can visit her website at www.juliefalatko.com or find her on Twitter @JulieFalatko or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/JulieFalatkoAuthor.

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Julie’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

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Julie is generously giving away a signed copy of SNAPPSY. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

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Joanne Levy: Yadda, yadda, yadda…Funny Characters

Author Joanne LevyHere I am, staring at my screen, thinking about how to write a post about character development as it relates to funny books/funny characters. I’m kind of stumped, because I’m not sure I do this much thinking about actually writing my characters, but I guess I must do some, at least subconsciously, because I do end up writing about people and despite my wishes and prayers, books don’t really write themselves.

So what makes people funny? There are a few different kinds of funny. First, there’s physical comedy—think Kramer from Seinfeld (am I dating myself here?). Characters like him barely have to talk and we find them funny because of their hilariously exaggerated way of doing things. The only drawback here is that physical comedy works really well on the screen, but can be tough to pull off on the page. Also, it can get tiring to read, so I would use it sparingly. Imagine if Kramer was a main character who was in every scene—we’d get tired of his constant antics pretty quickly.

Other people are just naturally funny. Jerry Seinfeld is a very funny guy. He’s quirky himself, but has a lot of great observations about other people (which makes him a great comedian). He’s sarcastic and has something to say about everything, even though he acknowledges he’s not perfect. I think that mix of judgement and almost humble realization that he’s not above reproach (giving him that tiny bit of necessary vulnerability) makes for a character who is fun to watch on the screen.

Some people are funny without meaning to be. I think you know where I’m going with this, because yes, here comes another Seinfeld reference: George Costanza. Everything he does is inadvertently funny despite his attempts to just live his life like a normal guy. There is nothing normal about George—he’s a caricature of the worst humanity has to offer. He’s the loser, the guy no one wants to be (or be with)—he’s dishonest, lazy, manipulative, self-serving and if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s unapologetic about all of it. He knows what he is, but seems to have no interest in improving himself. He’s the perfect anti-hero and we love to laugh at his foibles. Maybe it’s schadenfreude, but whatever it is, he’s very watchable.

One of the big distinctions with these kinds of characters is that with Kramer and George, we’re laughing at them, whereas most of the time, with Jerry, we’re laughing with him. He’s the straight man, the one who brings it all together*. He’s the one you want as your main character. Jerry on the show may not be the exact guy you want as your main character, since he’s also selfish and manipulative, but let’s not split hairs. You want the guy you laugh with and can relate to, at least on some level, to be the one in the spotlight.

Now, I should mention that for me, while I’m always writing a funny book, I may not be writing specifically about a funny person or even about a topic that is inherently funny. How people react to situations can make the difference between a gut-buster and crickets chirping. Think about a really funny situation (either from a book or real life) and how people reacted. Would it have been as funny if the people involved had behaved differently or had done the opposite?

SMAL NEW coverFor example, in my book, SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE, the main character, Lilah is not what I would call a naturally funny person (her bestie, Alex is way funnier). But Lilah gets into some embarrassing situations that end up being very funny. In one, she’s in a cafe, trying to convince her crush Andy that she can talk to ghosts. Andy’s (dead) father suggests Lilah mention she knows Andy is wearing Spiderman boxer shorts, something she would obviously never know on her own. This is a mortifying idea to Lilah, but when Andy refuses to believe her and is walking out of the cafe, Lilah hollers out (so everyone in the place hears) that she knows about his underwear. She’s desperate to convince him, but loses sight of where she is and what will happen if she blurts this out in public. If she had just let Andy go, the scene would not end on a funny note, though Lilah would have been spared some humiliation. Though where’s the fun in that?

So, things to remember:

  1. What are you trying to write—funny characters? A funny book? Both? Know the distinction.
  2. Are you laughing with your character or at them?
  3. Are you using physical humor and if so, are you using it sparingly? Read scenes aloud and you’ll know quickly if they’re getting onerous and clunky.
  4. Have you given thought to how your characters react in situations? Is it true to the character’s personality and what would happen if they reacted differently?

*And if you’re thinking I’ve missed Elaine, she’s funny, too, sort of as a female version of Jerry (maybe that’s why they never worked out as a couple).

If you want a great example of one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever watched that was pure physical comedy genius (albeit non-Seinfeld) click HERE.

author thumbnailJoanne Levy’s love of books began at a very early age. Being the youngest and the only female among four children, she was often left to her own devices and could frequently be found sitting in a quiet corner with her nose in a book. Now that she’s a grown up, Joanne is most often at her computer, channeling her younger self into the books she writes for kids who enjoy reading in quiet corners. Joanne still lives in Ontario with her husband and kids of the furred and feathered variety. You can follow Joanne on Twitter or find her on Facebook.

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Joanne is giving away a copy of her novel, Small Medium at Large, to one person who comments on this post! All who leave comments are eligible.