Tag Archives: middle school

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.

Additional Resources:

Great Books for New Middle Schoolers

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It’s August now, folks, and that means school is starting soon. (dun dun DUUUN) For no one is that more ominous, perhaps, than those starting middle school. What is it about middle school that makes grown men and women shudder?

I think it’s a combination of factors, any of which on their own would be challenging. First, it’s a new school, with the added small-fish-in-a-big-pond element. That can lead to trying on new identities, but all of your old friends (and enemies) are still with you, which can cause tension. The schoolwork is more challenging. It’s when puberty is at its most extreme poles, with some twelve-year-olds looking like they’re eight years old, and others looking like they’re eighteen. Some middle schoolers are starting to have crushes, and are craving more freedom than their parents are probably comfortable with. Oh, and braces. And pimples. To top it all off, it’s also the age when a lot of kids are getting cell phones, and exploring social media for the first time. (shudder)

Fortunately, there are a lot of wonderful middle grade books out there to help kids navigate this time, or at least make them laugh along the way. (All descriptions are from IndieBound, which is also linked for each book.)

Queen of Likes by Hillary Homzie: A tween social media queen is forced to give up her phone and learn that there’s more to life than likes in this M X novel from the author of “The Hot List.”

Karma Cooper is a seventh grader with thousands of followers on SnappyPic. Before Karma became a social media celebrity, she wasn’t part of the in-crowd at Merton Middle School. But thanks to one serendipitous photo, Karma has become a very popular poster on SnappyPic. Besides keeping up with all of her followers, like most kids at MMS, her smartphone a bejeweled pink number Karma nicknamed Floyd is like a body part she could never live without.

But after breaking some basic phone rules, Karma’s cruel, cruel parents take Floyd away, and for Karma, her world comes to a screeching halt. Can Karma, who can text, post photos, play soccer, and chew gum all at the same time, learn to go cold turkey and live her life fully unplugged?

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead: Bridge is an accident survivor who’s wondering why she’s still alive. Emily has new curves and an almost-boyfriend who wants a certain kind of picture. Tabitha sees through everybody’s games or so she tells the world. The three girls are best friends with one rule: No fighting. Can it get them through seventh grade?

This year everything is different for Sherm Russo as he gets to know Bridge Barsamian. What does it mean to fall for a girl as a friend?

On Valentine’s Day, an unnamed high school girl struggles with a betrayal. How long can she hide in plain sight?

Each memorable character navigates the challenges of love and change in this captivating novel.

Eight Keys by Suzanne LaFleur: Elise and Franklin have always been best friends. Elise has always lived in the big house with her loving Uncle and Aunt, because Elise’s parents died when she was too young to remember them. There’s always been a barn behind the house with eight locked doors on the second floor.

When Elise and Franklin start middle school, things feel all wrong. Bullying. Not fitting in. Franklin suddenly seems babyish. Then, soon after her 12th birthday, Elise receives a mysterious key left for her by her father. A key that unlocks one of the eight doors upstairs in the barn…

The Dirt Diary by Anna Staniszewski: Eighth grade never smelled so bad.

Rachel can’t believe she has to give up her Saturdays to scrubbing other people’s toilets. So. Gross. But she kinda, sorta stole $287.22 from her college fund that she’s got to pay back ASAP or her mom will ground her for life. Which is even worse than working for her mother’s new cleaning business. Maybe. After all, becoming a maid is definitely not going to help her already loserish reputation.

But Rachel picks up more than smelly socks on the job. As maid to some of the most popular kids in school, Rachel suddenly has all the dirt on the 8th grade in-crowd. Her formerly boring diary is now filled with juicy secrets. And when her crush offers to pay her to spy on his girlfriend, Rachel has to decide if she’s willing to get her hands dirty…

Smile by Reina Telgemeier: Raina just wants to be a normal sixth grader. But one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, severely injuring her two front teeth. What follows is a long and frustrating journey with on-again, off-again braces, surgery, embarrassing headgear, and even a retainer with fake teeth attached. And on top of all that, there’s still more to deal with: a major earthquake, boy confusion, and friends who turn out to be not so friendly.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander: 2015 Newbery Medal Winner, 2015 Coretta Scott King Honor Award Winner. “With a bolt of lightning on my kicks . . .The court is SIZZLING. My sweat is DRIZZLING. Stop all that quivering. Cuz tonight I m delivering,” announces dread-locked, 12-year-old Josh Bell. He and his twin brother, Jordan, are awesome on the court. But Josh has more than basketball in his blood, he’s got mad beats, too, that tell his family’s story in verse, in this fast and furious middle grade novel of family and brotherhood from Kwame Alexander.

Josh and Jordan must come to grips with growing up on and off the court to realize breaking the rules comes at a terrible price, as their story’s heart-stopping climax proves a game-changer for the entire family.

My Seventh Grade Life in Tights by Brooks Benjamin: Football hero. Ninja freestyler. It’s seventh grade. Anything is possible.

All Dillon wants is to be a real dancer. And if he wins a summer scholarship at Dance-Splosion, he’s on his way. The problem? His dad wants him to play football. And Dillon’s freestyle crew, the Dizzee Freekz, says that dance studios are for sellouts. His friends want Dillon to kill it at the audition so he can turn around and tell the studio just how wrong their rules and creativity-strangling ways are.

At first, Dillon’s willing to go along with his crew’s plan, even convincing one of the snobbiest girls at school to work with him on his technique. But as Dillon’s dancing improves, he wonders: what if studios aren t the enemy? And what if he actually has a shot at winning the scholarship?

Dillon’s life is about to get crazy . . . on and off the dance floor in this kid-friendly humorous debut by Brooks Benjamin.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt: A “New York Times” Bestseller. The author of the beloved “One for the Murphys” gives readers an emotionally-charged, uplifting novel that will speak to anyone who’s ever thought there was something wrong with them because they didn t fit in.

Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid.

Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions. She is afraid to ask for help; after all, how can you cure dumb? However, her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the trouble maker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself and that dyslexia is nothing to be ashamed of. As her confidence grows, Ally feels free to be herself and the world starts opening up with possibilities. She discovers that there’s a lot more to her and to everyone than a label, and that great minds don t always think alike.

33 Minutes by Todd Hasak-Lowy: Sam Lewis is going to get his butt kicked in exactly thirty-three minutes. He knows this because yesterday his former best friend Morgan Sturtz told him, to his face and with three witnesses nearby, I am totally going to kick your butt tomorrow at recess.

All that’s standing between Sam and this unfortunate butt-kicking is the last few minutes of social studies and his lunch period. But how did Sam and Morgan end up here? How did this happen just a few months after TAMADE (The Absolutely Most Amazing Day Ever), when they became the greatest “Alien Wars” video game team in the history of great “Alien Wars” teams? And once the clock ticks down, will Morgan actually act on his threat?

Told with equal parts laugh-out-loud humor and achingly real emotional truth, “33 Minutes” shows how even the best of friendships can change forever.

Stealing Popular by Trudi Trueit: In middle school, popularity is power and in this modern spin on a Robin Hood tale, Coco Sherwood is bringing justice to the social scene.

At Briar Green Middle School, you are either a Somebody, a Sorta-body, or a Nobody. Twelve-year-old Coco Sherwood falls directly in the Nobody category – the kids who are considered the misfits and outcasts of the school. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And it’s time to even the score.

With clever planning and sneaky tactics, Coco becomes the Robin Hood of Briar Green. Girls who never thought they had a chance to be noticed are now making cheer squad and turning into beauty queens. But when Coco takes on the ultimate challenge taking down Popular Girl #1 Dijon Randle her dream of equality on the middle-school social ladder may turn into a nightmare. Can Coco and the rest of the Nobodies triumph in a world where popularity is power? Or will the Somebodies win again?

The Sleepover by Jen Malone: From the author of “At Your Service” and the coauthor of “You re Invited “comes a laugh-out-loud romp about three besties who must piece together what happened after an epic sleepover becomes more than just karaoke and sundaes.

Meghan, Paige, and Anna-Marie are super excited for the Best. Night. Ever. The sleepover they’re planning is going to be nothing short of EPIC. Not even the last-minute addition of Anna-Marie’s socially awkward, soon-to-be stepsister Veronica can dampen their spirits.

But nothing prepares them for the scene that greets them when they awaken the next morning: the basement is a disaster, Meghan’s left eyebrow has been shaved off and she is somehow in possession of the Class Bad Boy’s signature hoodie, and there’s a slew of baby chicks in the bathtub. Worst of all, Anna-Marie is missing.

Trouble is, none of them can remember anything beyond the hypnotism trick performed by the two-bit magician Veronica arranged in an effort to impress the other girls. Now, as the clock is ticking and the clues continue to get weirder, the remaining girls must figure out exactly what happened the night before. Can they find Anna-Marie and pull off the ultimate save-face before parent pick-up time?

I Funny, A Middle School Story by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein: Jamie Grimm is a middle schooler on a mission: he wants to become the world’s greatest standup comedian–even if he doesn’t have a lot to laugh about these days. He’s new in town and stuck living with his aunt, uncle, and their evil son Stevie, a bully who doesn’t let Jamie’s wheelchair stop him from messing with Jamie as much as possible. But Jamie doesn’t let his situation get him down. When his Uncle Frankie mentions a contest called The Planet’s Funniest Kid Comic, Jamie knows he has to enter. But are the judges only rewarding him out of pity because of his wheelchair, like Stevie suggests? Will Jamie ever share the secret of his troubled past instead of hiding behind his comedy act?

Following the bestselling success of the hilarious “Middle School, The Worst Years of My Life,” James Patterson continues to dish out the funnies in another highly-illustrated, heartfelt middle school story. (Includes more than 175 black-and-white illustrations.)

Awkward by Svetlana Chmokova: Cardinal rule #1 for surviving school: Don’t get noticed by the mean kids.

Cardinal rule #2 for surviving school: Seek out groups with similar interests and join them.

On her first day at her new school, Penelope–Peppi–Torres reminds herself of these basics. But when she trips into a quiet boy in the hall, Jaime Thompson, she’s already broken the first rule, and the mean kids start calling her the “nerder girlfriend.” How does she handle this crisis? By shoving poor Jaime and running away.

Falling back on rule two and surrounding herself with new friends in the art club, Peppi still can’t help feeling ashamed about the way she treated Jaime. Things are already awkward enough between the two, but to make matters worse, he’s a member of her own club’s archrivals–the science club. And when the two clubs go to war, Peppi realizes that sometimes you have to break the rules to survive middle school.

How to Survive Middle School by Donna Gephart: Eleven-year-old David Greenberg dreams of becoming a YouTube sensation and spends all of his time making hilarious Top 6½ Lists and Talk Time videos. But before he can get famous, he has to figure out a way to deal with:

6. Middle school (much scarier than it sounds )
5. His best friend gone girl-crazy
4. A runaway mom who has no phone
3. The threat of a swirlie on his birthday
2. A terrifying cousin
1. His # 1 fan, Bubbe (his Jewish grandmother)
1/2. Did we mention Hammy, the hamster who’s determined to break David’s heart?

But when David’s new best friend, Sophie, starts sending out the links to everyone she knows and her friends tell their friends, thousands of people start viewing his videos.

Middle School is Worse than Meatloaf by Jennifer L Holm: Ginny has ten items on her big to-do list for seventh grade. None of them, however, include accidentally turning her hair pink. Or getting sent to detention for throwing frogs in class. Or losing the lead role in the ballet recital to her ex-best friend. Or the thousand other things that can go wrong between September and June. But it looks like it’s shaping up to be that kind of a year

As readers follow Ginny throughout the story of her year, told entirely through her stuff notes from classmates, school reports, emails, poems, receipts, and cartoons from her perpetually-in-trouble older brother Harry a portrait emerges of a funny, loveable, thoughtful girl struggling to be herself whoever that person turns out to be.

Katie Friedman Gives Up Texting! (And Lives to Tell About It.) by Tommy Greenwald: When a text goes wrong, Katie Friedman learns the hard way that sometimes you need to disconnect to connect.

Here are a few things you need to know about Katie Friedman:

  1. Katie is swearing off phones for life (No, seriously. She just sent the wrong text to the wrong person.)
  2. She wants to break up with her boyfriend. (Until, that is, he surprises her with front row tickets to her favorite band, Plain Jane. Now what?)
  3. She wants to be a rock star (It’s true. She has a band and everything.)
  4. Her best friend is Charlie Joe Jackson. (Yeah, you know the guy.)
  5. And most importantly, Katie’s been offered the deal of a lifetime get ten of her friends to give up their phones for one week and everyone can have backstage passes to Plain Jane. (A whole week? Is that even possible?)

How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes are Untied by Jess Keating: Ana Wright’s social life is now officially on the endangered list: she lives in a zoo (umm, elephant droppings ?), her best friend lives on the other side of the world, and the Sneerers are making junior high miserable. All Ana wants is to fade into the background.

Yeah, that’s not going to happen.

Creature File for Ana Wright:
Species Name: Anaphyta Normalis
Kingdom: The Zoo, Junior High
Phylum: Girls Whose Best Friend Just Moved To New Zealand; Girls Who Are Forced To Live In A Zoo With Their Weirdo Parents And Twin Brother
Weight: Classified
Feeds On: Daydreams about Zackardia Perfecticus and wish cupcakes
Life Span: Soon to become extinct due to social awkwardness

Katharine Manning is a middle grade writer still recovering from her middle school years. You can read more of her book recommendations at Kid Book List. You can also find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, and on Twitter