Looking At Humor, In Quantity

humorWhat transforms a staunch humor supporter into an even more zealous advocate of laughter? Well, it’s a bit like baseball — or cricket, for that matter. Once you start watching the games with any sort of intensity, you gradually notice the underdog (I used to be a Boston Red Sox fan) and start focusing emotional energy on the poor thing. And humor, alas, has tended to be something of an underdog in the big literary box scores.

For me, as a judge for the 1993 Australian Children’s Book of the Year Awards, reading and writing reports on the 243 submitted 1992 titles was a bit like watching a season’s worth of games in half a season. And I discovered that the whole process was a mighty effective way of cementing my allegiance to good quality humor: I found myself increasingly grateful for an occasional burst of laughter. I cheered for wit, delighted to see it getting up to bat a bit more frequently than it has in recent years’

I welcomed humor in picture books, where, as in the United States, Australian book creators have been stretching the form to include more and more sophisticated topics for more and more sophisticated picture-book readers. It was heartening to come across picture books bubbling and boiling with genuine fun.

Pamela Allen manages it in Belinda (Penguin Books/Viking), her brilliant tale for very young readers about the outsmarting of a persnickety cow. Libby Gleeson and Craig Smith join forces deftly in Where’s Mum? (Omnibus Books) to provide imaginative, amusing speculation about the whereabouts of a missing mother. Then there’s Mr Plunkett’s Pool (Random House Australia). Combine a neighborhood curmudgeon and his swimming pool with a team of clever, desperate youngsters without one, and what do you get? From Gillian Rubinstein and Terry Denton, an utterly satisfying, giggle-provoking tale of triumphant juvenile ingenuity. Denton’s crazily characteristic bright illustrations combine wonderfully with Rubinstein’s colorfully written text.

A different sort of wit filters through Dee Huxley’s Morgan and the Tooth Fairies (Margaret Hamilton Books), the simple saga of young Morgan’s efforts to establish the truth about the existence of tooth fairies. Unfortunately, neither Morgan nor Grandpa manages to stay, awake long enough to resolve the issue. But readers certainly do. Who could possibly drift off before such intriguing, amusing artwork? The keen-eyed have one glorious double-page spread after another in which to spot multitudinous tooth fairies lurking in corners, with gossamer wings and bare bottoms galore, carrying out the very serious business of tooth collection and recycling. And, as the watercolor-and-gouache illustrations show, what entrepreneurs they are!

For somewhat older readers — in the nine- to twelve-year-old age range — the name Morris Gleitzman has been steadily edging its way into cult territory. As author Ruth Park commented, he “writes in demotic, but it is a brilliant demotic…. He’s telling the children that aside from some sad and difficult things, life is primarily for fun, love and laughter.” Gleitzman now introduces Rowena, the mute young star of Blabber Mouth (Pan Macmillan). Like the protagonists in Two Weeks with the Queen, Misery Guts, and Worry Warts (all Pan Macmillan), Rowena has huge battles to fight — in this case not just because of her muteness, but also because of her outrageously loud and embarrassing father, who insists on standing on his head in restaurants and singing unrequested solos at school events. Gleitzman once again braids the poignant and the humorous together so deftly that we laugh through our tears. And Author Geoffrey McSkimming and his inimitable archaeologist-poet, Cairo Jim — not to mention Doris, a macaw, and Brenda the Wonder Camel — have plunked safari hats on readers’ heads and led them down the wonderful path of adventurous humor. In Cairo Jim on the Trail to ChaCha Muchos: An Epic Tale of Rhythm (Hodder and Stoughton), readers alternately bite their nails and chortle their way through the Peruvian jungle in search of ChaCha Muchos, the lost city of dancers.

Ariel, Zed and the Secret of Life (Allen and Unwin) by Anna Fienberg, with drawings by Kim Gamble, offers a bit of adventure, too, in a comic fantasy, imaginatively constructed and beautifully realized. Picture a place where an author can send an uncooperative character for lessons on how to behave. There’s a leprechaun, for instance, who perpetually tries to help people find gold; a conductor who sings off-key; a wicked witch who insists on growing healthful herbs; and plenty of others — recalcitrant, but usually endearingly eccentric. Into this unlikely group come young Ariel and Zed, sent there by Ariel’s mother for a holiday. What could have become a tumble of word play and literary jokes is, in Fienberg’s hands, a deliciously clever trickle of humor, running throughout sparkling prose.

As Random House Australia publisher Mark Macleod remarked at the launch of the very funny 1993 title Spaghetti Legs by John Larkin, young adults do truly still love to laugh. That can be a tricky one to figure if you merely tally up the number of humorous young-adult novels from the past decade. But — touch wood — the situation is improving. Random House’s list clearly shows lots of support for YA humor, with titles by writers such as Margaret D. Clark and Glyn Parry. And for a couple of other publishers, this past year has marked the appearance of some Outstanding contributions by new or relatively new authors.

The University of Queensland Press, for instance, released a romp by first-time young-adult author Sue Gough. Set in 1918 in Queensland, A Long Way to Tipperary concerns an odds-and-ends assortment of characters tossed together by fate to form a theatrical group. Mrs. Featherstonhaugh-Beauchamp, whose love of language makes her a walking thesaurus, leads the crowd, most of whom are on the run from someone or something. Splattered with historical color, it is an unlikely but thoroughly enjoyable saga.

Pagan’s Crusade (Oxford) by another relative newcomer, Catherine Jinks, catapults its readers back to twelfth-century Jerusalem. Although the time and setting may not sound conducive to hilarity, the book certainly has elements of the hysterical historical. “Monty Python Visits the Crusades,” perhaps. Sixteen-year-old Pagan Kidrouk is simply very funny. As the book opens, he is receiving his orders to work as a squire for a Templar knight, and the story chronicles the developing friendship and professional rapport between the two as an attack is mounted on Jerusalem. While the comments Pagan makes aloud generally sound quite respectful, his brassy internal monologue will keep readers highly entertained.

It’s heartening to see humor starting to make more regular, generally welcome, often quite worthwhile appearances in books appropriate for a variety of ages. May it continue! For this is one case where no one wants to have the last laugh.

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