PICTURE BOOK FOCUS Writing Funny Picture Books


Experienced editor Natascha Biebow shares tips on how to write a funny picture book 
and what young children find humorous at different ages.

Funny books are memorable. They are a joy to share with young readers, and often have a laugh for grown-ups too!


According to Dr. Paul McGhee, one of the most influential developmental psychologists in this field, humour is a key interpersonal skill and a sign of emotional competence.


Children who are funny are often seen as more likeable, able to navigate social situations more confidently, and therefore have more friends. Humour can be a useful way of managing emotions, handling anger and diffusing conflict. Being able to see the funny side of a situation can help children to feel more positive, which in turn improves their mood, reduces anxiety and boosts self-esteem. Humour boosts creative thinking. Word play enriches vocabulary. Humour is therefore a fantastic way to get young children to engage with reading and language. 


So, what makes kids laugh? What makes a book funny?


Dr. McGhee observed that humour changes as a child’s cognitive development develops – children have fun with newly developed physical and mental skills at each stage (children develop at different rates, so these age ranges are a rough guideline only):


1. Children aged 6-12 or 15 months: small children find it funny when their parents (or attachment figures) do something unusual or surprising – for instance, they walk on all fours like a dog, sneeze in an exaggerated way or suck on the baby’s bottle.


2. Toddlers 18 to 24 months: children are beginning to grasp ‘pretend’ so they find it funny if you substitute one object for another For example, you put a plate on your head instead of a hat or hold up a toothbrush and speak into it like a phone.


In these two first stages, the attachment figure is key, so to add humour to the reading experience; the adult can play with the story by reading it in a funny voice or changing the text.


3. Children aged 2–3 years: language, memory and abstract thought is developing, so children are able to make their first verbal jokes. They think it’s funny to give familiar objects the ‘wrong’ name: for instance, when you point to your cat and call it a ‘dog’ or ask them to show you their ‘nose’ and they point to their ear.


Sandra Boynton's books are excellent
first 'joke' books to share with very little children.

In Moo, Baa, LA LA LA! Sandra Boynton jokes
with the sounds animals make. Do pigs really sing
La La La?! (cue laughter).

The 'That's Not My....' series published by Usborne
are centred on a simple joke around what you usually expect
an animal or object's' 'usual' traits.


4. Children aged 3 – 5 years: begin to play with word sounds, made-up nonsense words and silly word combinations. They have more experience of the world and so they are amused by turning the world on its head with incongruities, absurdities and unexpected outcomes, both verbal and visual.


For instance:


• Adding or removing features from familiar objects: a house with a cake roof; a car with no wheels

• Impossible or unlikely behaviour: a dog on ice skates; an adult in nappies; a bike that flies; a zebra reading a book

• Exaggerated features: an extremely long-necked giraffe


However, preschool children, aged 2 to 5, do not understand irony yet.


This is the core picture book age and where we can see many, many great examples of humour (and many more not included here!):


In Cressida Cowell's What Shall We Do With the Boo Hoo Baby?
the joke is a turning of the tables - after trying everything to get
Baby to stop crying and go to sleep, the animals fall in a heap and Baby is awake!

Slapstick humour is a real winner with very young children.
Here, the silly Fox is covered in flour! And Rosie is always
one step ahead of him . . .  From Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins
Duck tries really hard to 'help' and NOT wake the baby, but he is really clumsy . . .
until at the end of the story, it is Duck who now needs a nap - in Baby's place!
From SSSSSSH! Duck Don't Wake the Baby by Jez Alborough

In The Gingerbread Bunny by Jonathan Allen,
the gingerbread boy is a . . . bunny (!)

Surprises and humour are hidden underneath the flaps . . .
Has the fox eaten the biscuit? Young children love to be in on the joke!
The twist here is also funny - this fox says he doesn't like gingerbread,
but he loooooves . . . chocolate!

Pants and toilet humour are endlessly funny and fascinating to pre-schoolers,
which is why the combination of unusual characters - pirates, dinosaurs, etc. with pants
is a hit. From Pirates Love Underpants by Claire Freedman and Ben Cort

Lots of hilarious and absurd different kinds of pants on every creature imaginable
in Pants by Giles Andrae and Nick Sharratt

Clever word play and silly juxtapositions make this series a comic hit.

The Frog decrees that creatures all have a dedicated place to 'sit',
so gnus sit on canoes, etc. Children delight in this rhyming nonsense,
wordplay and often absurd pictures. From Oi Dog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field

Frog ends up sitting in an unlikely spot - for a FROG, at least!

Duck is confident he is Mr Fix-It, but he is nothing but trouble and everywhere
he turns there are humorous disasters. When he tries to 'fix' Sheep's window,
he taps too hard. Oops, it must have been the glass! he says.
This rhyming text is filled with humorous situations. From Fix It Duck by Jez Alborough.

The craziest, absurd and unlikely things are in Angelica Sprocket's Pockets!
Including the 'kitchen sink' - always good to have a joke
for grown-ups. From Angelica Sprocket's Pockets by Quentin Blake

Olivia is spying on Mum - and hiding in plain sight . . .
Young children love hide-and-seek and can easily empathize
with Olivia whose childlike antics try her parents' patience.
From Olivia the Spy by Ian Falconer

 Mo Willems is a master comic - here, he has made Goldilocks' adventure
involve three dinosaurs (instead of bears) and chocolate pudding (instead of porridge),
and the potential for humour both visual and situational is a delight.
From Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems

The classic Mr Men series by Roger Hargreaves is filled with funny,
quirky characters like Mr Topsy Turvy and Mr Funny whose literal
take on the world mirrors that of young children. Mr Funny's car is a shoe!
From Mr. Funny by Roger Hargreaves 

Children's humour continues to develop. By age 5, they become interested in riddles, though they can’t always understand them fully. So, for instance, they might tell a knock-knock joke, but it has a seemingly random answer. By age 6 or 7, children can understand puns and double-meanings of words and so are fascinated with riddles. The child is now the one in power of the ‘right’ answer! 
Stories can now become more involved and longer with more complex humour.

Richard Scarry's books are filled with a wonderfully familiar, yet humorous world:
In this book, The Funniest Storybook Ever, cartoon-style stories turn everyday
occurrences on their head and are filled with slapstick situations. Bread that 'talks'?!

6. Children aged 6 or 7 years: their sense of humour will resemble the humour of adults. Now, children have the developmental ability to make connections and move back and forth between different words. They can therefore understand puns and double-meanings – hence they are fascinated with riddles. The child is now the one in power of the ‘right’ answer!

A crocodile that eats bananas to get strong is just the kind of quirky
role reversal that sparks humour. And in this story, the crocodile really wants to
eat a child . . . (not the usual or expected food!). Imagine such a thing!
From I Really Want to Eat a Child by Sylviane Donnio and Dorothee De Monfreid

Situations where the protagonist has one-up on the grown-ups are
classic opportunities for humour. Here, Daisy doesn't want to eat her
peas and no matter what outrageous things Mum promises
(including elephants and even a whole chocolate factory!). she won't eat them
because she simply doesn't like peas, just as Mum doesn't like Brussels sprouts.
From Eat Your Peas by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt

Cows that type?! So unexpected. And even more humorous is that they
are holding the farmer to ransom and demanding electric blankets.
An ingeniously funny and unusual take on farmyard antics.
From Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin

Filled with wordplay and rhythmical language, the Megamogs books
feature a group of mogs who are on a mission. In this book,
The Megamogs and the Dangerous Doughnut by Peter Haswell, they bake a
giant doughnut big enough to squash the competition.
Completely crazy, strangely believable and hilarious!

The Curious George stories are filled with situations that mirror the
lives of children - keen and curious explorers of their world. The monkey
never means to get into trouble, but he just can't help getting caught up in
funny situations that escalate wildly! Here, George has decided to write with ink,
and when it spills, what more logical way to fix it than with soap and water – with
disastrous results! From The Complete Adventures of Curious George by Margaret & H.A. Rey

Lots of picture books use humour to connect with their young audiences. Could this be a way to make your story stand out also? What are your favourite funny books and experiences of sharing humour with young children?

Natascha Biebow is an experienced editor, mentor and coach, who loves working with authors and illustrators at all levels to help them to shape their stories. www.blueelephantstoryshaping.com
Want to learn more about writing funny picture books? Check out this online webinar!

Picture credits: Animals Baking and Badger Baking by kind permission of Lizzie Finlay




1 comment:

  1. Thanks Natascha. A very helpful article and some excellent examples to get us thinking too. Thanks for posting!


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