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Kids love when they think they’re smarter than adults, don’t they? Try putting your shirt on as pants or wearing your shoe as a hat and they’ll double-over with laughter at your stupidity.

Similarly, in writing, having a clueless narrator produces sure-fire giggles. Knowing more than the protagonist is like being in on a secret joke with the author. It’s one of the keys to writing humor for children.

But one of the biggest mistakes in writing humor, according to Executive Editor Steve Meltzer, is random humor—humor that doesn’t serve to drive the story forward but exists merely as a gag. “Even the absurd needs to make sense and be believable,” said Meltzer. He then read BETTY BUNNY LOVES CHOCOLATE CAKE as an example of humor that feels effortless and works within the context of the story. When Betty Bunny’s parents tell her she’s a “handful” so often, she thinks it’s a term of endearment and tells her mommy she’s a “handful” right back. (Of course, I’m rushing out to buy the book right now! I know, I’m a handful!)

Remember when writing picture books for kids, your audience includes parents, too. Some humor should be for their benefit. Think of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons—watch them now and there are jokes that certainly went over your head as a child. Pixar films also have a unique way of delivering entertainment that parents enjoy. (Like in “Finding Nemo” when Nemo is waiting to sabotage the filter. The dentist goes to the bathroom and Peach says, “Potty break! He grabbed the Reader’s Digest! You’ve got 4.2 minutes!”)

Mr. Meltzer also reminded us to take advantage of page turns because “they’re the writer’s rimshot.” Page turns should be surprising and fun. They create suspense: “And then…” [page turn] “BAM!” Hit them with your best [rim]shot.

Audrey Vernick and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich also examined humor in picture books and suggested “take something we all know and insert something absurd that doesn’t belong…the unfamiliar in the familiar.” Audrey did just this in her debut IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN?. The humor in the book happens when the buffalo goes to school, helping to ease readers’ fears about the first day of Kindergarten.

Other ways to add humor to your stories include having a funny sidekick, inserting a running gag, and taking the joke beyond the typical expectation of three. When the joke happens a fourth time, it’s hilarious because we already thought it was over after the third instance.

Misunderstandings, like those literal translations in Amelia Bedelia are also humor winners. Comic wordplay is another technique to try. Combine words, create new words, use funny sounds (onomatopoeia). My debut picture book is THE MONSTORE—a store where you buy monsters. The mashed-up title signals that this will be a funny book. (At least I hope you’ll think it’s hilarious!)

So, are there other humorous devices you like to use in your writing?

Photo Credit: Alexandre Ferron

Did you know that author/illustrator Grace Lin was Chinese? Well, she didn’t.

As a child, she was the only Asian in her elementary school, so she saw herself as an ordinary white, middle-class kid living in upstate New York. She pretended she wasn’t Asian. None of the books she read had characters that looked like her. It wasn’t until her school librarian pulled out “The Five Chinese Brothers”, the sole ethnic title, that Grace was reminded she was different.

At the NJ-SCBWI conference in Princeton this past weekend, Grace Lin gave the keynote presentation and told us about her identity crisis as an illustrator. In art school she imitated styles and she made art to impress other people. She wanted to hear, “You’re such a great artist, Grace! How do you draw so well?”

But she soon realized she was copying others, wanting to be like Michaelangelo, and making art for the wrong reasons. “Be an artist because you have something to share with the world,” she told us. So Grace began to draw things that made her happy.

She found that Chinese folk art, with its bright colors, patterns and lack of perspective appealed to her. Every inch of the illustration was utilized–there were no blank spaces. This folk art resembled Matisse, and she began to see an East-West commonality in the art she preferred, which became an East-West identity that she embraced.

If Grace was to make art that was important to her, she had to think of what was most important in her life: her family. So she created a family portrait that was uniquely her own–colorful, vibrant and in a style that was not seeking to impress, but merely being who she was.

Grace explained to us that our art should have a personal connection. “If it’s not important to me, why do it?” Her first book was very personal, reflecting on the time she spent with her mother in the garden, tending to Chinese vegetables. She used to be embarrassed by the strange plants that grew outside her home, but she now realized the importance of her heritage. She remembered how she never saw herself in books, and she wanted to give other Asian children the chance to see themselves represented.

Instead of being pigeon-holed as an ethnic author, Grace Lin has seen her books melt away race and culture and appeal to every child. “Pre-conceived notions of the market don’t really matter,” she said. She reminded us that if we create what we love, what’s important, our passion will always shine through and find an audience.

Up Next from the Conference: Humor in Picture Books

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