Tag Archives: humor

Lemony Snicket’s Particularly Unfortunate Event

Last week at the National Book Awards, Jacqueline Woodson, who is African American, won for Best Young People’s Literature. Immediately afterward, Daniel Handler, who is Lemony Snicket, made a watermelon joke.

A video is here, and this transcript was made by David Perry:

Woodson: Thank you for your love of books, and thank you for changing the world.

[music]

Handler: I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind.

And I said you have to put that in a book. And she said, you put that in a book.

And I said I am only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morisson, and Barack Obama saying, “This guy’s ok! This guy’s fine!”

Alright

[cackle]

Alright, we’ll talk about it later.

I first learned of this alleged joke by following a Twitter link to a Horn Books blog entry by Roger Sutton titled, “Being a White Guy in Children’s Books.”

Sutton touches on issues of diversity and male privilege in children’s publishing, but also suggests: that Handler is guilty of “overreach,” as if there were some less objectionable version of this particular joke; that Handler mistakenly thought he was “cool enough” to pull off such a joke, as if another humorist might have had better luck at it; and that Sutton, or any other white male, can’t complain too much because they could have easily “fallen into the same trap.”

I strongly disagree with all three of these implications.

First, take a look at the structure of Handler’s joke. At its core is an observation that’s only ironic or amusing to someone who buys into an infamously offensive racial stereotype, and which anyway has nothing to do with Woodson’s literary accomplishments. This was not a risky joke that hovered just beyond Handler’s comedic reach, as Sutton implies. This was an unfunny statement that would have been equally inappropriate to the venue no matter how Handler could have told it.

Is Sutton at least right that the joke might have worked in a different context if only Handler were “cool” enough to pull it off? I don’t know whether Sutton is using “cool” as that Fonzie-in-a-leather-jacket mix of confidence and style that lets some people get away with breaking the rules, or as a euphemism for…something else.

Either way, let’s assume a “cool” comedian like Chris Rock were able to make a successful joke about Jacqueline Woodson’s watermelon allergy. So what? That would be entirely irrelevant because Daniel Handler is not Chris Rock, and because the National Book Awards are not an HBO comedy special.

So if it’s not the joke that failed, or the insufficient “coolness” of the joke teller, then what exactly is the trap that Sutton thinks Handler fell into?

I’d like to posit that this was a classic example of filter-fail.

We all have thoughts we would never say out loud—and I mean all of us humans, not just white males like Daniel Handler, Roger Sutton, and myself. Our senses of humor are built over a lifetime, based on personal experience, and influenced by the society we live in, largely beyond our conscious control. Once you hear a racist joke, it can never be unheard. Luckily, our brains come equipped with filters. When we know a joke is wrong, hurtful, offensive, and unfunny, we can choose not to pass it along to other people.

Handler’s contextual disclaimer emphasized how aware he was that a watermelon joke would be too toxic for him to write into a book, so it’s mind-boggling that he would opt instead to say it out loud to an auditorium full of people—not as an off-the-cuff remark that reached too far and fell flat, but as a story that took months of planning and reflection beforehand.

On the basis of a private conversation that we have no other record of, Handler believed he had Woodson’s permission to tell a racist joke about her, and that such permission would keep anyone else from being offended. No matter how cool you might be, there is no way to ever pull that off.

If Daniel Handler’s internal filters had been working properly, telling him which jokes can be shared with others and which should be smothered, none of us would ever need to know that Lemony Snicket is amused by such things as watermelon allergies among people of color.

But now we do.

Is Sutton right to worry that he himself might suffer a filter-fail under similar circumstances? Or that this is in any way a problem exclusive to white males? Is it wrong for him to empathize with Handler? Is it wrong for me not to?

I am holding Handler to a higher standard than other people, not because of Handler’s gender or skin color, but because he is a professional humorist who writes for children. I also write humor for children, and only wish I could do it half as well as Handler can. He has long been an idol and role model for me, especially in the way he has developed his literary voice and professional persona. I want to do what he does.

But while I can see myself making any number of embarrassing gaffes if I were given a microphone in a public setting, I can’t imagine ever joking about Jacqueline Woodson’s watermelon allergy, or finding humor in such a situation.

It’s personally horrifying for me to think that a watermelon joke could come from the same quirky wit that has produced books that have made me laugh out loud. I won’t be able to read those books quite the same way as before.

And for me, that’s just from the second-hand offense I feel on behalf of other people, a tiny fraction of the outrage and betrayal expressed by Nikky Finney and other commentators who experience racism in their daily lives, and who reasonably expected a literary awards presentation to be a safe zone.

To Handler’s credit, he owned up to his filter-fail in a series of tweets and pledged $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign, with additional matching funds of up to $100,000. Not that he can pay, buy, or donate his way to forgiveness, but it is refreshing to have at least some attempt at restitution.

We need diverse voices so that our children internalize actual viewpoints instead of ugly stereotypes. That way they can grow up to tell jokes about all the great stories they’ve read, rather than the hateful old jokes of the past.

School for S.P.I.E.S–Giveaway and Interview with Bruce Hale

I’m thrilled to welcome author Bruce Hale back to the Mixed-Up Files. He’s one of the funniest and most entertaining people I’ve ever met. He’s been busy since his last Mixed-Up Files interview. Today, we’re celebrating the launch of Playing With Fire, the first book in his newest series, School for S.P.I.E.S.

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Bruce Hale and his School for S.P.I.E.S. editor, Stephanie Lurie.

Juvenile delinquent and budding pyromaniac Max Segredo belongs in juvie hall. At least, that’s what his most recent foster family would tell you. Instead, Max ends up on the doorstep of Merry Sunshine Orphanage-their very heavily guarded doorstep. As he begins to acclimate to his new home, Max learns a few things straightaway: first, cracking a Caesar Cipher isn’t as hard as it seems; second, never sass your instructor if she’s also holding throwing knives; and third, he may not be an orphan after all.

I love Playing With Fire! How did you come up with the idea for your School for S.P.I.E.S. series?

PLAYING WITH FIRE represents the coming-together of several ideas and loves.  First, ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved spy stories.  James Bond, Get Smart, The Bourne Identity, Mission: Impossible — all these and more inspired me to want to write a spy story myself.

Second, I had a yoga teacher in Hawaii who was like the ultimate drill sergeant — crusty on the outside, but big-hearted underneath.  She spoke in a kind of hybrid of Japanese and broken English, and she was such a character, I wanted to put her in a book someday.  And third, I had an odd what-if thought: What if an orphanage was actually a covert school for spies?

When all these influences came together, I hit upon the title “Shanghai Annie’s School for Spies (and Merry Sunshine Orphanage).”  For a long time, all I had was the title (which changed), but eventually I developed that germ of an idea into the book it is today, with my old yoga teacher in the Hantai Annie role.

 

The spy school feels so authentic. How did you learn so much about spy techniques?

Sadly, college didn’t teach me any of what spies call tradecraft.  (An education, wasted!) Instead, I learned it all — lock picking, code breaking, surveillance — through interviews and reading.  I read lock-picking articles online (while wondering if the FBI was tracking my reading habits). I interviewed a computer guy about hacking.  In fact, I even took a kickboxing class to help me with the martial arts stuff.  I tell you, if they ever offered a spy summer camp for adults, I’d take it in a heartbeat.  That stuff is fun!

 

Once you get a book published, is it easier to get offers for future books?

Yes and no.  Yes, in that they know you can deliver, so all else being equal, they’re inclined to trust your abilities.  No, in that it always depends on the quality of the book you’re submitting and whether it fits their list.  To my occasional exasperation, publishers will still pass on one of my stories if they feel it’s not right for them.

 

What are some of the pros and cons of writing a series?

First off, I love reading series, so it’s a joy to write the kind of books I like to read.  Series give you the chance to deeply explore the world and characters you’ve created, and to build a relationship with your readers, which will carry over into other books you write.

On the down side, series can be challenging.  You have to strike a balance between familiarity and freshness — introducing new elements and characters while preserving enough of what readers loved in the previous books.  Also (if you’re lucky and your series lasts long enough), you may find you’ve cycled through all your ideas and are having a hard time coming up with plots you haven’t used already.

Bruce Coville once said that series books are training-wheel books, helping kids learn to read more confidently.  I’m honored to be producing these kinds of books for young readers.

 

How do you develop characters strong enough for an entire series?

Main characters need a number of key elements to make them series-worthy.  First, they must be likeable, even if they’re an anti-hero.  Second, they must have some quality that makes them stand out (Harry Potter’s wizarding abilities, Katniss’s archery skills and loyalty, Chet Gecko’s punning, etc.).  Third, they must have a certain optimism and drive that keeps them moving forward.  And fourth (just to keep this list short), they must be active.  Passive characters can’t sustain a series.  When asked to move the plot forward, they just say, “Eh, maybe later.”

Photo of Bruce Hale taken by Sonya Sones

Photo of Bruce Hale taken by Sonya Sones

Can you share a writing exercise for series or humor?

Here’s a fun one for humor: Experiment with the triple play.  A triple play is a list of three words or things, in which the first two are expected and the third is a surprise.  That surprise creates the humor.  For example: in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Bill and Ted say that Beethoven’s favorite works include Handel’s Messiah, Mozart’s Requiem, and Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet.  The first two items set up an expectation, which is subverted by the third.  Like, “Tall, dark, and loathsome.”

Have fun experimenting, and remember comedy writing’s Rule of Nine: For every ten jokes you come up with, nine will suck!  But that tenth one will be a gem. 

 

Want a chance to win one of two signed copies of Bruce Hale’s School for S.P.I.E.S.: Playing with Fire? Click on the Rafflecopter widget below, and you’ll see seven quick and easy ways to enter! The winners will be announced on Tuesday, July 23. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

 

Thank you so much for visiting the Mixed-Up Files, and for your generous giveaway, Bruce! 

 

The second book in Bruce’s School for S.P.I.E.S. series is called Thicker than Water, and is scheduled for June 2014. While waiting for the next spy book, you can check out some of the other humorous series Bruce has written. Bruce has sixteen books in his Chet Gecko series, and four books in his Underwhere series. He recently released his new picture book, Clark the Shark, the first of seven in that series. Clark the Shark – Dare to Share! will be out in January 2014.

 

You can find out more about Bruce Hale on his main website, his School for S.P.I.E.S. site, his writing tips website, or on Twitter. Here’s a link to Bruce’s Chet Gecko activity guide. You can view a message from Agent X: School for S.P.I.E.S., and watch the below video of Bruce Hale reading an exciting scene from Playing with Fire.

 

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her twelve and fifteen year-old daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer pup who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s blog or Twitter to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

Happy Flag Day! Let’s celebrate with an interview with award-winning author Kate Messner and a giveaway!

 

Happy Flag Day!

flag

 

What better way to celebrate than to talk to award-wining author Kate Messner        

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about her middle-grade mystery book, Capture the Flag!

 

Kate’s newest middle-grade novel series has it all – excitement, intrigue, high-stakes action, and best of all it centers on the stolen American flag! What a great idea and a fun topic for our Flag Day post!

 

 

A stolen flag, a secret society, and three complete strangers . . .
Capture-the-Flag
Anna, José, and Henry have never met, but they have more in common than they realize. Snowed in together at a chaotic Washington, DC, airport, they encounter a mysterious tattooed man, a flamboyant politician, and a rambunctious poodle named for an ancient king. Even stranger, news stations everywhere have just announced that the famous flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been stolen! Anna, certain that the culprits must be snowed in, too, recruits Henry and José to help find the thieves and bring them to justice.
But when accusations start flying, they soon realize there’s even more than a national treasure at stake. With unexpected enemies lurking around every corner, will the trio solve the heist before the flag is lost forever?

 

 Praise for CAPTURE THE FLAG
A Junior Library Guild Selection
“A fast-paced mystery . . . a sparkling start for a promising new series.” –KIRKUS REVIEWS
“A novel as cinematic in execution as it is patriotic in theme.” –PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

 

I just finished reading your delightful book, Capture the Flag, I was wondering – where did you get the inspiration for this story? Did you visit the actual flag in the Smithsonian?

I did visit that flag – but not until I already knew I was going to let it be stolen in this book!  The inspiration for CAPTURE THE FLAG was actually the setting — I love airports and thought it would be great fun to set a mystery in one during a snowstorm. I love the super-charged atmosphere…everyone coming or going someplace. In airports, everyone has a story.  And I loved the idea of the snowstorm keeping everyone stuck there for a short period of time so my kids could investigate the crime, knowing that if they didn’t solve it, all the evidence and suspects would fly away as soon as the storm let up.

 

Much of the book takes place in an airport and the baggage area underneath. Were you able to go behind the scenes of the baggage handling area to do research for this book?

That’s the one thing I wasn’t able to explore firsthand in my research. Not surprisingly, airport security in a post-9/11 world doesn’t make exception for children’s authors.  However, I was able explore those under-the-airport worlds virtually, since most companies that build baggage handling systems have videos online showing how they work.

 

How much research, if any, do you do for your fiction books? Do you think this is  important?

I do extensive research for my books, especially when it comes to making sure I have the setting just right.  For CAPTURE THE FLAG, that meant spending a day at the Smithsonian, exploring behind the scenes with the curator of the flag exhibit and talking through just how those fictional bad guys might get out of the museum with the flag.

 

This book is your first mystery. Did you have fun writing it?

Great fun – but it was a great challenge, too, and taught me to plan in much more detail than I’d been accustomed to with my previous books.

 

Any tips aspiring authors should be aware of when writing mysteries for middle grade readers?

When I teach mystery writing workshops, I focus a lot on planning – the idea that suspects aren’t the only ones who need motives; investigators do, too.  It takes a lot of playing around with ideas to make sure all the details end up fitting together just right. And I think setting is huge in mysteries, too. The place can be a huge part of the story, and I encourage writers to think of it as the playground for their characters. What adventures can happen in a museum? In an airport, or a rainforest, or at the World Series?

 

Do you tend to stick with one writing level at a time or go back and forth depending on what inspires you?

I write across genres — middle grade, chapter books, and picture books – both fiction and nonfiction – and I love them all, so I couldn’t choose just one as a favorite. Most often, it’s my deadlines the determine what any given writing day looks like. The book that’s due first gets first priority, and when I’m not on deadline, I tend to play a lot, working on whatever seems to be calling me that day.

 

Your characters are ethnically diverse. How important do you think it is to have ethnically diverse characters in middle grade  books?

Very much so – and I’ve actually been quite involved in providing input for the covers for this mystery series. Scholastic has been amazing about asking for feedback, and we’ve talked about just this topic – the importance of not only including kids from different backgrounds on the covers but also showing their faces.  When I was teaching 7th grade, it was important to me that all of my students could find books with faces on the cover that looked like theirs. It was frustrating to me when most of the books I could find with brown faces on the covers were historical or issue books, where the story was about the character’s race.  In real life, it’s not like that — kids of all different backgrounds go to school and play lots of different sports and solve mysteries and have adventures, and I feel like we need to be mindful of that when we write and market books, too. I’ve been thrilled with the covers for the books in this series!  (And I can’t share the cover for book 3, MANHUNT, quite yet, but I can tell you that I think it might be the best of all!)

Many thanks!  ~Kate

 

And many thanks to you, Kate, for giving us a peek into your writing process. Mysteries are my favorite and I really loved this book! Can’t wait to read the new one in the series.

To learn more about Kate’s many amazing books, see her website http://www.katemessner.com/

Now, for what you’ve all been waiting for,  Kate has generously offered to donate an autographed copy of Capture the Flag to one lucky reader!  Simply leave a comment below and you will be entered in the giveaway.

 

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Jennifer Swanson is a life-long mystery lover. Some say she was born with a magnifying glass in one hand a Nancy Drew book in the other.