The Power of Humor in YA, a guest post by Jeff Strand
By way of introduction, I present to you dear reader Jeff Strand. Jeff Strand writes funny, irreverent, slap your sides humorous YA. It’s the kind of humor I don’t think there is enough of in YA, though if you like Jeff Strand I do recommend Lish McBride, Sarah Rees Brennan and Lance Rubin as well. I am a huge fan of Jeff Strand’s books and today we are honored to have a guest post by him discussing humor in YA.
First of all, I do believe that kids should be forced to read the classics in school. I certainly don’t want a new generation to get out of something I had to endure.
“Endure” isn’t always the right word. I loved Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye. But Wuthering Heights? If you genuinely enjoyed Wuthering Heights, I salute you, but for me that book was constant “Gaaaahhhhh!!!” I have scarring memories of lines like ‘Wretched inmates!’ I ejaculated, mentally, ‘you deserve perpetual isolation from your species for your churlish inhospitality.’ And right after that, ‘T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld. Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.’
For those weeks in English class, reading was a nightmarish activity. Consecutive words on a piece of paper? Ugh. Where’s my Playstation 4? (Playstation 4 did not exist when I was in school, nor did Playstation 3, 2, or 1, but I’m trying not to date myself.)
Again, it was right of my teacher to subject the class to that excruciating novel. It was good that he quizzed us on that miserable book. I retroactively admire him for making us write papers about it. This ghastly reading experience was good for our brains. We needed it. But we don’t want students to have post-traumatic stress disorder when they see a book, so there should be a balance of weighty books with fun ones. Humor!
I don’t mean humor as in the comedic works of William Shakespeare, which some say should have you holding your sides as you roll in the aisles with tears of laughter streaming down your face. ROFL!!! The footnote explains why that reference is hilarious! No, I mean books that would make an actual teenaged human being laugh.
I mean, you can’t gorge yourself on candy for every meal (sadly) but you want candy sometimes. Nobody can live on healthy food all the time. Actually, I guess they can. It’s not as if somebody’s going to say, “Since I only have nutritious dining options available, I’m just going to stop eating altogether!” So it’s a bad metaphor. Which is fine, because I’m talking about the kind of books where you don’t have to analyze metaphors.
As a kid, I always gravitated toward the “funny” books, although they tended to be more “lighthearted” than joke-filled. Judy Blume’s Fudge series and Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series, which I read over and over and over and over and over and over, were filled with wacky antics but not necessarily “Bwah hah hah hah!” types of reads. I would tell my friends about the crazy trouble these characters got themselves into, but I wasn’t quoting zany one-liners.
The first laugh-out-loud funny book I read was Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. My reaction was, “This is allowed? You can be this over-the-top goofy and funny and somebody will actually publish it?” I knew then what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to kidnap Douglas Adams, bury him in a shallow grave, assume his identity, and write his books for him. This plan turned out to be impractical, for a number of reasons, and I settled for trying to write like him.
Now, as a kid, I was most definitely not a reluctant reader. My parents were both avid readers and passed that on to me. Though the lighthearted romps were my favorite, I loved tales of adventure, mysteries…pretty much everything, old and new. I didn’t need anybody to dangle a carrot to get me to read. The reading experience itself was my carrot. (Again, I’m not here to do good metaphors. If you want good metaphors, Charlotte Bronte put plenty of them in Wuthering Heights.) (I’m here to do humor, like when you pretend that you thought Charlotte Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights, but of course it was her sister Emily. Charlotte wrote Captain Underpants.) (I apologize for that misinformation. Emily Bronte illustrated Captain Underpants but didn’t write it.)
But not everybody inherited a love of reading. And that’s why “fun” books are important. Sure, “fun” can involve swashbuckling pirates or high-speed cowboy horse chases, but humor is one of the strongest indicators that a book might be enjoyable to kids who aren’t predisposed to pick one up. “Hey, books don’t have to be gloomy! Books can make you laugh so hard that people give you weird looks!”
I don’t specifically write with a reluctant reader audience in mind, but few things are more gratifying than getting an e-mail that basically says, “I didn’t even know I liked to read! Reading to me was punishment! But your book, with all of its stupid jokes, made me realize that not all books exist to suck joy out of my life. What else have you written? What other books are like yours?”
Not all reluctant readers are going to discover nutty comedy novels and go on to develop a deep appreciation for deep complex literature. But at least it can be a step away from “Books! Ugh!” Though I have not personally created a new generation of lifelong readers, I’ve at least converted a few of ’em, and it’s not through my brilliant character development or unbelievably gripping storylines. It’s ‘cuz they’re funny! There’s not just room for that kind of material in the world of young adult fiction—it’s a crucial part!
Of course, as an author of humorous young adult fiction, I would say that, but still…
To recap: Funny = Good. Impenetrable metaphor = Also Good. We need both.
About STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED
You can’t always believe what you see in this hilarious coming of age novel from the author of The Greatest Zombie Movie Ever and I Have a Bad Feeling about This
Harry Houdini. Penn and Teller. David Copperfield. Marcus Millian the Third.
Okay, so Marcus isn’t a famous magician. He may not even be a great magician. But his great-grandfather, the once-legendary and long-retired Zachary the Stupendous, insists Marcus has true talent. And when Grandpa Zachary boasts that he and Marcus are working on an illusion that will shock, stun, and astonish, Marcus wishes he could make himself disappear.
The problem? Marcus also has stage fright—in spades. It’s one thing to perform elaborate card tricks in front of his best friend, Kimberly, but it’s an entirely different feat to perform in front of an audience.
Then Grandpa Zachary dies in his sleep.
To uphold his great-grandfather’s honor, the show must go on. It would take a true sorcerer to pull off the trick Marcus has planned. But maybe he’s the next best thing…
Sourcebooks Fire (April 4, 2017)
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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