If you saw last week’s Perfect Picture Book Friday post on DUCKWORTH THE DIFFICULT CHILD, you might be curious as to how Michael Sussman comes up with his ideas. Well….here he is to share his process of “mining” for the heart of humor. Thanks, Michael!
The Heart of Humor
Is anything more delightful than the sound of a child’s laughter? As an at-home dad during my son’s first three years, I spent much of the day dreaming up ways to elicit laughter from little Ollie. So, it’s not surprising that when I started writing for kids, I gravitated toward comical stories.
There are many types of humor, but for an audience of young children, my two favorites involve incongruity and the absurd. In the former, the perception of something incongruous—something that violates our mental patterns and expectations—makes us laugh. In the latter, we find humor in situations that are irrational, ridiculous, preposterous, fantastical, or whimsical.
In my debut picture book—Otto Grows Down—Otto makes a birthday wish that his new baby sister Anna had never been born, and it comes true when the days start moving in reverse. Otto is soon freed of his bothersome sibling, only to find himself trapped in backwards time.
Our experience of time is that it always moves forward, so backwards time flies in the face of our expectations. It also sets the stage for some rather startling absurdities. Otto takes baths when he’s clean and they make him dirty. A trip to the barber makes his hair longer. Tuesday is trash day, when Otto helps bring in the garbage. And going to the bathroom is downright disgusting!
In Duckworth, the Difficult Child, Duckworth’s parents believe that he’s a difficult child, and even when a cobra slides right up and swallows Duckworth whole, they remain unconvinced. Absurdist humor ensues, in that the story presents a ridiculous situation that is impossible to take seriously, and the obliviousness of Duckworth’s parents is exaggerated to the point of absurdity. The incongruity of Duckworth’s desperate plight and his parents’ haughty indifference and self-preoccupation, is also amusing.
Comical stories are fun and entertaining, and help develop a child’s sense of humor. But for me, the heart of humor is that it can convey deeper meanings. Humor enables writers to present unpleasant and taboo aspects of life in a satirical manner, taking the edge off and relishing in the absurdity of the human condition. Painful topics—such as sibling rivalry (and death wishes!) in Otto and feeling misunderstood and abandoned in Duckworth—can be addressed in a way that is less threatening and more enjoyable than a straightforward or didactic approach.
One method of devising a story that makes use of incongruity is to juxtapose two things that don’t normally go together. Tammi Sauer’s Nugget and Fang pairs a shark and a minnow, two sea creatures that aren’t typically buddies. The unlikely pairing of pirates and babies results in good fun in Melinda Long’s Pirates Don’t Change Diapers.
To get in touch with the absurd, it helps to forego rational thought in favor of the dream logic of the subconscious mind. Ideas may come to you while walking, jogging, communing with Nature, taking a hot shower or bath, daydreaming, meditating, or jotting down dreams upon awakening. Examples of absurdist picture books include Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hatches the Egg, Judi Barrett’s Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and Peter Brown’s Children make Terrible Pets.
So, try your hand at composing a funny story. After all, our world is in serious need of laughter!
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