I volunteer as a School Reading Partner through my local school district. My job? Reading one-on-one each week with two first graders I’ll call Eva and Nick. Although the program provides reading materials, the selection is limited. So each Friday, I bring in a big bag of books hoping some will appeal to my seven-year-old friends. Not easy! They may struggle a bit with reading, but they are sharp and discerning and have very particular tastes.
In addition to being loads of fun, reading to the kids has been invaluable from a writing perspective. Eva and Nick don’t care if a book is highly acclaimed, made the New York Times Bestseller List or conveys an important message. In fact, I’ve discovered, some of the “buzziest” books fall flat. After we’d read several pages of one such book, Eva proclaimed it “boring” and said “Let’s read something else.”
What does engage them?
Not so much the puns and clever language that I appreciate (oftentimes it goes over their heads), but silly, slapstick, CRASH-BOOM-BANG humor.
And, of course, they want a good story with escalating drama. Eva, in particular, loves identifying patterns and predicting how the story will unfold (she’s usually spot-on).
A few winners? They got a big kick out of Archie the Daredevil Penguin by Andy Rash . . .
And they loved Jon Agee’s It’s Only Stanley, featured today.
Although it’s a bit older than most of the books we highlight here (it was published in 2015), reading it aloud several times gave me lots of food for thought. In particular, it got me thinking about the different forms of humor used in the book. Here are a few:
Absurdity-within-Normalcy Humor. Walter and Wilma Wimbledon are trying to sleep, but—one by one—their kids alert them to a series of strange sounds and odors. Each time, Walter dutifully drags himself out of bed to investigate, then returns to calmly reassure everyone that “It’s only Stanley” clearing the drain or fixing the oil tank. Just normal stuff, right? Except that it’s the middle of the night . . . AND Stanley happens to be a dog—one with an extraordinary aptitude for science, tools and tinkering.
Clueless-Adult Humor. Time after time, Walter vastly underestimates the scope of Stanley’s projects. For example, when he discovers Stanley stirring a steamy vat of greenish liquid amidst an alarming jumble of beakers and tubes, he tells the family, “It’s only Stanley. He’s making catfish stew.”
Visual Humor. An ordinary beagle with a mad scientist bent offers plenty of opportunities for funny illustrations. But there’s also a visual side story running through the book: Max, the cat, as the unwitting victim of Stanley’s experiments—lapping up toxic spills, getting dripped on and shocked. (Eva, in particular, found the cat illustrations hilarious.) In addition, the perfectly timed page turns and double spreads amp up the drama and laughs.
Language Humor. The alliterative family names—Wilma, Walter, Wendy, Willie, Wanda and Wylie Wimbledon—are funny and fun to say, as are the plentiful sound effects: CLANK, BLUBB, SLURP, BZZZ, SPLISH, SPLASH, SPLOOSH, KAPOW!
Besides all that, the book is written in clever and perfectly-rhythmic rhyme, which propels the story forward and lets kids anticipate what’s coming and fill in the blanks.
Jon Agee has been doing this for a long time, and is a master of the picture book form (we’ve featured other Agee books here and here). Want more? There’s a great interview with him at Authors Revealed.
Any books made you laugh out loud lately? For kids or adults? I’d love to hear.
And, as always, thanks for reading!