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Using Humor to Lighten Heavy Topics

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E.B. White once famously said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” And yet, analyzing how other authors have used humor is one of the best ways to learn how to do it in your own work. When asked to think of middle-grade authors who write humor well, folks like Dav Pilkey, Tom Angleberger, Brandon Sanderson, and Jeff Kinney come to mind. Their books make readers of all ages laugh out loud.

But what I want to talk about today is using humor to lighten up heavy topics in middle-grade. Humor arises when authors set readers up with certain expectations and then subvert them in an unexpected way. There are many ways to do this, but here are some of the most common:

Humorous Language:
Puns, plays on words, and even just words that sound funny (just try saying collywobbles, blubber, or discombobulated without laughing) are a great way to interject humor into a story that is otherwise serious. Including a character who often says the wrong word (saying prism instead of prison), who regularly gets idioms wrong (another one bites the rust), or who often makes punny jokes is a great way to inject a little humor. Metaphors and similes are great humor-generators, especially when they’re unexpected. So is freshening up an old cliché. A great example of this is when Trudy Trueit uses “scare the fingernail polish off of me” to describe a teacher in My Top Secret Dares & Don’ts. “Scare the pants off” would have been a cliché, but she makes it into the perfect MG-appropriate phrase with humorous results.

Misunderstandings:
When two characters misunderstand each other, comedy can ensue. In Rosanne Parry’s The Turn of the Tide, the cultural misunderstandings between two cousins, one raised in the US and one raised in Japan, add a dose of levity to a story that deals with the aftermath of a devastating tsunami.

Book jacket for Kate Messner's The Seventh WishHumor as a Motif:
Although Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish nearly broke my heart, the family plays a somewhat absurd word game throughout the story that adds some much-needed levity and sweetness.

Using Physicality for Laughs:
This is the Larry Curly and Moe style of humor that involves trips, spills, fights, and other humorous incidents involving movement and the human body. John David Anderson uses this effectively in Ms. Bixby’s Last Day to add a little humor to a real tear-jerker of a story.

Book Jacket for I Am FartacusToilet Humor:
Never underestimate the power of a good fart joke. Just ask Mark Maciejewski, whose debut, I Am Fartacus, has as many fart jokes as the name implies.

The Magical or Unexpected
Whether it’s the magical wish-granting talking fish in The Seventh Wish or a talking monument in Tricia Springstubb’s Every Single Second, the magical or unexpected is a great way to add humor.

The Absurd
Using absurd characters or situations is a great way to inject some unexpected humor into your story. Dobby from Harry Potter is probably one of my favorite examples of this (and one of my favorite heroes in the series) because he’s always doing something ridiculous and ridiculously funny. But so is the bakery owner, who is extremely devoted to the quality of his very highly priced cheesecake, in Ms. Bixby’s Last Day.

Voice
An unexpected or unusual voice can add humor to a story too. Part of the reason the combination of Raymie, Louisiana, and Beverly in Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale works so well is because they are such unusual characters who are different from each other. The cementing of their friendship and their somewhat absurd adventure to rescue a library book, a caged bird, and a dog, is a story full of laugh-out-loud moments even though all three girls are dealing with heavy family situations. Gary Schmidt’s Okay For Now is another example of two contrasting characters, sarcastic/angry Doug and his friend Lil Spicer, have voices that add humor to a story colored by abuse and bullying.

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