Writing Humour for Children: Laughing all the way to the bank?

by Celia J Anderson

It’s easy for aspiring authors to think that all we need to do to make our fortune is to rattle off a funny children’s book. How hard can it be, for goodness sake?
J.K. did it in a café. Comedians like David Walliams got the under elevens sniggering. Even Madonna had a bash at it.

Children love to laugh

Children love to laugh, don’t they? They love custard pies, slapstick, slipping on banana skins and jokes about breaking wind. Well, true – but it’s not until you settle down to write humour for the under 12s that you begin to realise what a minefield it can be.

Views from the chalk face: what makes them laugh?
As a teacher in a primary school, I’m in the enviable position of having a captive audience on tap. Nine and ten year olds pull no punches, and as the writing process trundles along, sometimes creaking and groaning a bit, they have been my best critics. When they laugh out loud, it’s the best feeling in the world. If they don’t, I think hard and rewrite with a bit more oomph. If they beg for more, I know I’m nearly there. 

If they beg for more... I'm nearly there

 Recently, I asked for their opinions on what makes a book funny.

  • We like it when people break wind - a lot.
  • And when it’s smelly; anything smelly is good.
  • Also if a story has stuff about underpants in it.
  • If there are funny, weird made up words and names.
  • Oh, and when it says bum,
  • ...and when it says knickers
  • ...and poo is really funny, obviously.

This week we’ve rattled our way through a wide variety of rib-tickling reads. The leaders in the field at the moment are:

GANGSTA GRANNY by David Walliams
Favourite quote; ‘As she took each step a little bubble of wind puffed out of her saggy bottom. It sounded like a duck quacking. Either she didn’t realise or was extremely good at pretending she didn’t realise.'

THE EMPEROR'S UNDERWEAR by Laurence Anholt and Arthur Robins
The text is simple and sparing and the pictures made the whole class erupt in helpless giggles.

Naturally includes lots of wind-based jokes. Very popular, especially with the boys.

Understated, ironic and easy to read.

The past made entertaining – tips on how to find a wife; 'Boys, choose your bride. It has to be someone of your own position in society. You must use an old lady as the messenger to carry your proposal. Your granny would do.'

Moments of truth 

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found it more and more essential to read my children’s fiction aloud when I think it’s nearly there. It’s so much easier to find out if you’re sounding pompous that way. Sometimes, the blank faces tell you that you’re way off the mark and you’re not being remotely funny, but now and again, it works first time. A group of ten and eleven year old reviewers acting as guinea pigs liked this opening line from my latest book, Teacher Torture.

An icy wind was blowing across the sea from Norway. Flynn wished Norway had kept it.

"...and poo is really funny, obviously"

Blasts from the Past

Looking through the bookshelves at home and seeing the rows of relics from my childhood, the most tattered and loved books are obvious. Winnie the Pooh and the rest of the series by the wonderful A.A Milne appeal to so many age groups. If they’re read aloud, very young children can appreciate the subtle humour, and adults will still laugh at the tricky relationships and laconic conversations between the residents of the wood. I have always loved the stories by Elizabeth Enright – less obviously funny but so clever, with the Melandy family including the sarcastic Rush and feisty Randy. Spike Milligan never fails to amuse, and recent additions include Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men series and the stories of Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer.

Top tips to avoid slipping on the banana skin of children’s literature:

  • Don’t talk down to your audience, even if they are considerably shorter than you.
  • Do your research thoroughly - read as many funny children’s books as you can manage without being overcome with a need to say ‘bum’ and ‘fart’ in everyday conversation.
  • Keep it simple for the very small people. Complicated plots can be sneaked in later.

Good luck!

When she’s not marking children’s work, or writing stories involving pants, Celia spends far too much time on Facebook (Celia Joy Anderson) and does a lot of walking to counteract the cooking, eating and drinking which form another of her hobbies. She blogs as part of the Romaniacs online writers’ group . Her own website is now nearly ready to be launched. Celia’s first novel, Sweet Proposal, a contemporary romance involving chocolate, a jacuzzi and a bespoke bookshop, will be published by Piatkus Entice on August 1st. Her ultimate dream is to have her children’s books published too. Usually sea-starved in the depths of the Midlands, she can often be found wandering happily around Brighton visiting her two daughters pretending to collect ideas for her next book.


  1. Great to get those views from the chalk face, Celia! Thank you.
    Are we surprised that it's nearly all toilet humour for nines and tens?

    1. Hi Jan - Not at all surprised; I think if I just stood up in front of them and said 'bum, willy, poo' for an hour or two, they would be in toilet heaven. Fitting in sensible things like RE and spelling tests is not easy!


  2. Lovely post. Nothing worse than getting fart paranoia while writing.

    1. Morning Mark - so true. Fart paranoia is very hard to treat. Only massive amounts of cake can overcome it for me, how about you?

    2. I use cake too. But I spell it beer.

    3. Sometimes I spell it wine. For sometimes, read often.

  3. Thanks Celia, it's always good to see someone extolling the virtues of funny books - writers can get a bit snooty about them sometimes! My favourite so far this year has been Steve Hartley's first Oliver Fibbs book - even my wife thought that was very funny. And every time we get a new Wimpy Kid book, the whole family reads it in sequence!

    1. Hi Nick - I'll search out Steve Hartley pronto, it's hard to keep up with all the great ones that are around at the moment. The Wimpy Kid books fly off the shelves in my class too!

  4. Loved the kids suggestions as to what makes them laugh! Not surprised that pants and poo make the shortlist!! :)

    1. I've just shown one of the boys his picture on here(he's the extra smiley person on his own in the photo)and he was extremelyimpressed, but one of the others caught sight of the word poo in the article and was hysterical in seconds...I rest my case!

  5. Ha ha! I still find those things funny now (maybe I shouldn't admit that ;))!

    1. And why not? You can come and sit at the back of the class and snigger if you like?

  6. I'm struggling to add bums and farts jokes to my funny books. Is there anything else that they find funny?

    1. Crazy rhymes, things that take them completely by surprise, grown ups acting oddly...I'll keep thinking, Jo!

  7. I visit around 30 primary schools a year (mostly for free) and sell around 4,000 books there each year for KS2 children. I try to avoid toilet humour and find other wild and amusing things to write about instead in my various books of "Wicked Tales". Slapstick-type action works well. Characters with big personalities and unexpected behaviour can be awesomely funny. And if you combine the two approaches, it's great. eg Alicroc the Alien, who ends up teaching 4 year olds... Ed Wicke

    1. Thanks Ed, interesting. Yes, absolutely, children do laugh at other things, slapstick definitely, but it does seem that they ARE preoccupied with the toilet!
      So, I'm not surprised that when asked what makes them laugh, they come up with the list above.
      As a visiting author, it sounds like you give great value sessions, that don't really on these 'easy' laughs. (I love the idea of 'Alicroc the Alien' teaching 4 year olds.)
      I'm wondering if the difference between your experience and Celia's is between that of a special person (visiting author/performer) who they may only see once and their teacher, who they see everyday and know really well.

    2. I think you're right, Jan. We absolutely love authors to visit - they are all major celebrities in the children's eyes and if they can perform too (sadly not all can, but most have a good go) then lots of books are sold too. I've always had great respect for authors who venture into schools because I know that in some places, teachers don't do as much crowd control as they perhaps might, and the children are always wildly excited to see a new and exciting visitor. But it is so worth it - if you're a writer wondering whether to risk it, please do. Your books sound great, Ed. We'd love to have a visit - where are you based?

  8. I'm based in mid-Hampshire (Overton) and visit most of Hants/Berks/Surrey for free so long as the school lets me sell books in an appropriate manner. That way I still get the equivalent of a standard Society of Authors fee without the school raiding its books budget. I also visit most London areas free; for other areas I charge depending on how far away they are and whether I have family I can visit in combination with the school!
    I like big KS2 audiences, usually 100-200 at a time for 75 minute sessions. And I love going to rough areas and getting the reluctant boys motivated to read.

  9. Oh, and contact email is edddwicke@hotmail.com !

  10. Thanks for your blog, I've found interesting topic for my writings.


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