What are they Laughing at?

wonders if kids and the authors that write for them are finding the right things funny

Image: H is for Home

Re-reading your favourite childhood books is often a bad idea. What delighted you as a six-year-old often seems dull, badly written, or even problematic 10 or 15 years later. Back in 2007, I was an expert in all things Jacqueline Wilson. Last month, upon noticing a collection of Jacqueline Wilson books in the library to rival my own, nostalgia prompted me to read a couple of her books again. What I discovered was quite how much children’s literature relies on comedy. Even for a writer praised for tackling difficult topics, her books focus on humour; young characters often call grown-ups ‘twerps’, and snot is a frequent feature. But why?

Since before the days of Enid Blyton’s staunch- ly moral characters, children’s books have rst and foremost been focused on teaching children good behav- iour. Look at 2004’s Everybody Poos by Taro Gomi. On the surface, it’s a bizarre, daft picture book lled with various people and animals relieving themselves. It’s hard to imagine anyone having a reaction other than laughter, yet even this book perpetuates a moral code. Its purpose is to teach young children that everyone has a proper place to ‘go potty’, and theirs is on the toilet. It equates their ‘bad’ behaviour with animals, subtly indoctrinating a sense of shame for pooing in nappies or their pants. The humour is never just about making children laugh; it’s about making them pay attention to the lessons they should learn.

This isn’t always a good thing, however. As I settled down to read Wilson’s Double Act in the library, I was expecting wonders. It won both the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and the Red House Children’s Book Award. Instead, I found a book in which every single joke made criticised ap- pearance or weight. Written in the epistolary form, the novel is the diary of 10-year-old twins Ruby and Garnet as they navigate their Dad’s new partner, Rose, a new house, and a new school. Rose is introduced through an illustration which is hastily corrected by the characters to present a much fatter figure. “Yes, that’s Rose”, writes one twin, “Only she’s even worse than that. What does Dad see in her?” Rose’s moral fibre directly correlates to her size, where being presented as fatter is clearly an indication that she is a worse person.

Their playground bully is introduced as the “great Blob.” Ruby scorns “It’s a wonder he can cram himself into the teeny-weeny desk. Imagine having to sit next to him.” Even at the end, when the “great Blob” becomes Ruby’s best friend, she still cheerfully assures the reader that she continues to call him “Jeremy Blob.” As a child, I found this book hilarious. I laughed at Rose, a woman with a career and house of her own who was willing to be kind and loving to her new partner’s children. I laughed at “the great Blob” because I knew nothing about him other than the fact he was fat. Only now does this seem strikingly wrong.

Literature is a child’s rst glimpse of the world outside their home and classroom. Comedy is a good thing – it makes these books enjoyable and memorable – yet it often relies on mocking ourselves and society in a way that is not always healthy. Books like Double Act play on humour’s superiority effect, where we nd jokes funny because they make us feel better about ourselves. We laugh at “the great Blob” because we’re not fat. Jerry Seinfeld once said that beautiful people don’t make good stand-up comedians, as the audience feels threatened by beauty in comedy because they don’t want to laugh at their own desires.

Comedy is a mask behind which other- wise problematic claims can be obscured. It relies on an audience (in this case preteens) and a target (here obesity). Yet these two things are not separate. In the academic year 2007/8, when I rst read Double Act, 34.3 per cent of boys and 30.7 per cent of girls were either overweight or obese according to a national survey. 30.7 per cent of my female class- mates were reading Double Act likely having experienced weight-related issues or bullying themselves. For these girls, the excuse of com- edy becomes a potential reason for them to deny their own struggles with weight and the belief that they should not be taken seriously either.

Children’s authors need to remember that they’re writing for children. Comedians like Amy Schumer mocking their own weight in stand-up shows to an audience of adults is an entirely different affair to de ning a children’s character as a “great Blob.” Wilson went on to write books with characters of all shapes and sizes, yet this doesn’t stop books like Double Act causing harm through laughter. Maybe this seems too politically correct – but try telling that to over 1.6 million people in the UK who suffer from eating disorders.