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Funny to Say
Humour in children's Literature

By Josiane Polidori

The roots of laughter are in our genetic code; it is a physiological function that is profoundly inscribed in our makeup. On the other hand, humour has a social element that has roots in a specific cultural environment. Humour occurs within an aesthetic and cultural context, involving linguistic transposition. Humour therefore has limitations with respect to translation from one language to the other and from one cultural environment to another.

Humour in children's literature is at the confluence of literary studies and social studies. It must be remembered that the contemporary view of children, dates from the 18th century. Prior to that, children were disdained for their naivety and clumsiness. This view of children is no longer accepted, and humour in children's literature treats children as people in their own right. Humour in children's literature can be conveyed through various forms and mechanisms by means of both text and illustrations intended to be read by children and adolescents.

Forms of humour

The first works of children's literature were addressed as much at adult readers as at young readers. These works are part of our global heritage (Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll). The use of humour therefore relates to double meanings in which the young reader and the adult reader were addressed at different levels. Nursery rhymes made extensive use of humour with word play, sound play and alliteration. Traditional tales are full of humourous situations and were used as material for the first publications written for children. Humour takes many forms and its creators used numerous language and illustration techniques.

Irony is a way of making fun of something by saying the contrary of what is meant. One of the techniques that was often used with irony is the mirror effect in which the adult world is imitated, showing all of its faults; the animal world is also used in the same way.

The humour of the absurd does not follow the rules of logic, reason or common sense. It is necessary to be familiar with the underlying logic before being able to distort it in order to understand this type of humour The use of incongruent situations, incoherent dialogue, or a series of events without apparent logic can be used to create absurd humour. Dennis Lee and Sheree Fitch have developed a style of poetry of the absurd (nonsense) in their many poetry texts.

Satire is a style that is used to attack something, someone or a situation by making fun of it and using features similar to ridicule, in order to expose its defects or shortcomings. Satirical humour is often virulent, and is featured in children's literature in books for adolescents and in small doses for younger readers.

Parody is often considered as a literary sub-genre since an original work must be created in the first place before it is possible to parody it. Parody is an exaggeration of style, narrative or characters. Parody is somewhat like a fun-house mirror, and makes allusions to literary sources or popular cultural. The most well-known fairy tales are often used as models to be parodied.

Caricature in both texts and illustrations is defined as a comical representation that exaggerates a set of negative, ridiculous or unpleasant features.

Scatological humour uses unacceptable language that often refers to bodily or intimate functions and to topics that were formerly considered to be private matters. Scatological humour is often used in contemporary children's literature, which may be a reflection of the influence of popular culture and the fading away of taboos associated with sexuality and bodily functions as attested to by the popularity of the Captain Underpants series.

Farce presents characters that become the victims of situation reversals, to provide amusement at someone's expense.

Mechanisms of humour

Children's books very often use humour to defuse tensions through laughter or to win over more recalcitrant readers. A playful approach is used in books for the youngest children, and this use of play is combined with a range of techniques or mechanisms.

Language humour provides a wide range of techniques from wordplay to neologisms, to the juxtaposition of different linguistic registers or even misunderstandings about the meaning of words. The combination of language levels, the imaginative use of spelling, grammar and dialect creates a mismatch that facilitates the process of humourous writing. Brian Doyle, François Barcelo and Robert Soulières are very skilled at these language manoeuvres.

The principle of the situation comedy features risky situations and unlikely sequences of events that makes people laugh in order to foster a release of anxiety. The effects of accumulation and exaggeration frequently used in the climax occurs with the denouement. Comic strips often use a gag mechanism in the last frame. The author Astrid Lindgren used a situation comedy in the adventures of Pippi Longstocking, and Robert Munsch did the same in his books featuring Matthew.

Comedy involving characters is based on the point of view of the narrator or characters; they are unaware of their shortcomings or have a reserved attitude towards others. This multiplication of points of view triggers humour through the disparity in behaviour, a change in tone or departure from the norm. Animals with human characteristics are frequently used in children's literature. Other child or adult characters are also portrayed in a comical manner using role reversal or transposition into the animal kingdom. The use of stereotypes is frequent, and contemporary children's literature is more cautious with regard to national or cultural stereotypes in order not to offend the sensibilities of readers in a market that is increasingly globalized. Conflicting logic is personified in the adventures of Sophie, created by Louise Leblanc in the books illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay.

Comedy through repetition is an effective technique in humour, which relies both on language humour, as well as situation comedy. When Mordecai Richler had Jacob Two-Two travel by "car, train, bus, canoe, helicopter, oxcart, rickshaw, stilts, rubber dinghy, skis, submarine, hot-air balloon, camel, raft, dogsled, roller skates, glider and motorcycle", he combines comic language, repetition and situation comedy to amuse the young reader.

Humour in illustration

Illustrators use similar forms of humour and similar methods to integrate humour into their illustrations. Instead of using words their materials are the paintbrush, watercolours, coloured pencil crayons, pastel or computer graphics. Irony or satire can be expressed using changes in scale and contradictory references, which often appear in the illustrated books of Pierre Pratt, Gary Clement, Marie-Louise Gay and Yayo. The absurd is visually represented by outlandish dimensions, the juxtaposition of incongruous visual elements or grotesque details as in Alphabeasts by Wallace Edwards and many books illustrated by Dušan Petri?i?. Caricatures are conveyed by exaggerating features and by including ridiculous and unpleasant details. The big monster who was too fond of reading in Rogé and Ogre Fun by Lori Lesynski are two representations of caricatures of monsters or perhaps they are just very realistic portraits. Parody brings together several iconographic codes that refer to the initial source and a new interpretation which often produce deliberately anachronistic effects as in The Paper Bag Princess illustrated by Michael Martchenko or the Good Times Travel Agency series illustrated by Bill Slavin.


L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'Ancien Régime by Philippe Ariès, Librairie Plon, Paris, 1960

Getting a Laugh: Gender, Status, and Humour in Task Discussions by Robinson, Dawn T., Smith-Lovin, Lynn in Social Forces - Volume 80, Number 1, September 2001, pp. 123-158 - Guide to Children's Books by Michele Landsberg, Penguin Books, Markham, 1985 Sophie prend les grands moyens by Louise Leblanc, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay, la courte échelle, Montréal, 1998.

L'humour dans la littérature jeunesse: Proceedings of the Eaubonne colloquium, Jean Perrot, editor, In Press, Paris, 2000

Reader/Listener responses to humour in children's books by James Harrison in CCL, no. 44, 1986

Something Funny Happened at the Library, Rob Reid, American Library Association, Chicago, 2003

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Created: 2008-05-08
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