Friday, December 11, 2015

It's in a Children's Book, so It Must Be Funny— Right?

In a world of adorable, hug-inducing, warm-butterfly-feelings children’s books, there’s the occasional shadow hanging around at the edges of all that light, reminding us to come to the ghoulish side instead. There was a time between the 70’s to the early 90’s, when fiction for children and young adults was all about social realism. Gothic tropes never truly went out of style, and in the world of children’s literature — whether or not Gothic tropes are meant for younger audiences is an often-debated topic — kids are picking up horror and dark humor stories now more and more.

And for those of you that have been missing Edward Gorey’s sly humor, we have just the perfect book for you. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen teamed up to create Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs, a book of ironic and witty last moments in the lives of a variety of animals. Readers will be reminded especially of Gorey’s famous abecedarian The Gashlycrumb Tinies, where young children meet their untimely deaths in gruesome, yet alphabetically educating, ways — complete with whimsical illustrations by Edward Gorey himself.

Last Laughs is grouped by animal type, starting with a slew of fowl and other farm animals  — who meet their unfortunate deaths with a head butt or cream-ation — to our aquatic favorites, such as the poor Narwhal, and even a few insects at the end (though whether or not we feel sorry for them is debatable). While it is not an ABC book, there is no doubt children of all ages will be drawn to its frightening premise and to its gruesomeness and ghoulishness. Neil Gaiman himself argues, “I think horror has always been integral to children’s fiction. Look at Hansel and Gretel. Fiction teaches kids how to survive in the world.”

The illustrations by Jeffery Stewart Timmins are vastly from different from Gorey’s. Whereas Edward Gorey was refined and very tongue-in-cheek macabre with his black and white illustrations, Timmins’s are more of the slapstick variety in tones of browns, blacks, and sickly yellows, with creatures that meet their ends in more silly ways. The wordplay in the epitaphs makes death a slightly ridiculous notion and even a little bit fun. One of my personal favorites is:

Ciao, Cow”
This grave is peaceful,
The tombstone shaded,
but I’m not here—

I’ve been cream-ated. 

  • Knight, Linsay. "Why Kids Love Scary Stories." Randomhouse. n.p., Web. 10 December 2015.
  • Lewis, J Patrick, and Yolen, Jane. Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs. Watertown: Charlesbridge. 2012. Print.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

I See London I See France, I See No Ones Underpants- Musings Inspired by Dr. Joseph T. Thomas

Everyone remembers those fun rhyming songs from the playground that were silly and almost wrong to say in front of adults. Like “Ms. Susie Had a Steamboat” and that part when she, wait, was it sat on a piece of glass? It’s funny to think that many of us have these songs stored away in our own childhood minds.

In Poetry's Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children's Poetry by Dr. Joseph T. Thomas, the idea arises that potty words are so much more than that—begging the question: where does The Adventures of Captain Underpants lie in all this?

In his prologue, Thomas discusses the ideas of laughter in reference to Bakhtin’s theories behind what makes Carnival so magical. He states that there are two types of laughter. One type would represent the lying, fake, and deceiving laughter that is tied to judgment, done out of fear or habit. The other type would be this free spirit and not-judged laughter that is allowed in this exclusive space of Carnival (11).  

Going back to those fun yet “gross” playground rhymes that children sing only to one another links a mechanism to avoid punishment from the adults—a space where laughter can really be seen as the childhood experience suppressed and hidden away from the adult world. Since free laughter, or “carnival laughter,” comes in when ideological forces are at bay, it creates its own images and symbols away from the rational and structured “real” world (11). However, this idea of free laughter is restricted to spaces where everyone enjoys a sense of non-judgment, which is perhaps what makes the child reader so curious and enthralled by The Adventures of Captain Underpants.

Written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey, The Adventures of Captain Underpants is a series about two fourth graders that live in a very Carnivalesque world, filled with words like poopie pants, great granny girdle, and turbo toilet. Here it appears that there is a sort of satire that exists in a place where kids are encouraged to read and are also allowed to read “naughty” things that shouldn’t be said in the adult world. 

But, as Bakhtin brings up, satirical laughter might actually have negative connotations that come along with it (12). Since children express themselves and learn to read through these funny words, they must still learn when and where adults will find these potty topics appropriate and when not.  Children, perhaps unknowing of what they are really saying, will experience a time where they may say, “You’re a poopie pants,” in the wrong place and feel an embarrassment that comes with it. Here is where a satirical laughter is used—a way that allows passage into the “mature world.” So then Professor Pippy P. Poopypants can adultly be equated to those who brown nose to get people to do what they want—adult appropriate humor.
When we really think about it, containing the Carnivalesque to a space of free expression only allowed at Halloween, Marti Gras, Pride, and Disneyland, suggests that adults feel compelled to still experience things that are deemed childish and grotesque. Like The Adventures of Captain Underpants, these children’s playground rhymes may display grossness, but on the other hand, seem to be a symbol of free expression before judgment and suppression take over that adults swoon over.

Poetry's Playground: The Culture of Contemporary American Children's Poetry. Wayne State University Press: Landscapes of Childhood Series, 2007.