The serious business of silliness in children's books
Published on: 18 December 2023
At BookTrust, we're very partial to a funny book, because we know laughter can engage a child in a love of reading. We spoke to Heavy Metal Badger author-illustrator Duncan Beedie about how important silliness can be.
Being a children's author and illustrator has given me huge privileges over the last ten years or so, none more so than being invited along to schools and literary festivals to share stories with children.
That said, the experience can be a daunting one. Entering a room full of stony-faced toddlers who are overdue a nap or sugar-boosted youngsters who leap from wall to wall with the agility of a spider monkey (usually a combination of the two) can be a little hair-raising to say the least.
I am not an entertainer – I can't sing or dance or do magic tricks, nor do I perform cartwheels whilst wearing polka dot dungarees. I would imagine it is fair to assume this applies to most carers and educators too. This is why silly books are so important.
For some reason or another, silly humour seems key to engaging young audiences. Maybe it is hardwired into our brains from primordial times when the first cave-dweller stubbed their toe on a rock or got their bum stuck in a giant Venus flytrap? Whatever the reason, I have learned from experience that there is no better way to hold a child's attention than through laughter.
Exploring different ways to get children laughing
There are many ways to make a reader chuckle in a picture book. Using playful text that incorporates onomatopoeia, alliteration or words that fall on just the right side of 'naughty' is one way.
But as an illustrator, it is always fun to throw in some background gags that don't necessarily tie directly into the text, such as the caveman with his head stuck in a beehive in Oof Makes An Ouch!
Sometimes visual details can be just a little bit absurd, like the badger who happens to be shaving when he is interrupted in The Bear Who Stared. Visual incongruity is something I like to play around with. It's always fun to slap a pair of cowboy boots on a hedgehog – why not?
Making stories fun for the whole family
When I wrote my latest book Heavy Metal Badger, I wasn't necessarily setting out to write a 'silly' book. The entire exercise was an attempt to stave off boredom whilst I sat in a vast, empty studio all alone during the coronavirus lockdown.
That said, in hindsight, the idea of a frustrated, metal-obsessed badger leaving a trail of destruction in his wake as he looks for a musical outlet for his talents does seem pretty silly. I was also keen to make it funny for the adults whom I knew would be reading this to the children in their charge, so I littered the illustrations with rock band puns and references to heavy metal music videos.
This leads me to a pertinent point: picture books need to be as engaging for adults as they are for children.
As a father, one of my abiding memories of story time with my daughter is trying to stay awake whilst reading a randomly chosen title from her bookshelf at bedtime – I'm looking at you, Toy Story Storybook Collection!
And humour is the most viable way of doing this. Most adults enjoy silliness as much as children, hence the success of irreverent and absurd comedy acts like Monty Python, Vic & Bob, Harry Hill, and so on. Nothing spans an age gap quite like a well-timed fart gag.
How can we expect kids to be enthused by a book if we read it to them in the manner of someone reciting their own epitaph? Laughter is contagious, but so is apathy, so if the adult holding the book isn't hooked in by the story neither will the children be. Pretending to find it funny won't wash either – kids can spot a phoney a mile away.
A couple of years ago I illustrated a book by the brilliant author Karl Newson called I Really, Really Need a Wee. It's about a bush baby who, funnily enough, really, really needs a wee and we follow her through the jungle as she jiggles, wiggles and contorts herself looking for a place to do her business.
In 2022, Karl and I were invited by BookTrust to tour libraries around England to read the book to children and it seemed to be a huge hit. By the end of the year, it was in the top ten of all library rentals nationwide and has been, without doubt, the best-selling book I've ever been involved in creating.
If ever there was a clear indication of how popular silly humour is in children's books, that was it. Needless to say, I Really, Really Need a Poo will be out next February.
Heavy Metal Badger by Duncan Beedie is out now.