Dissecting Frogs with Jarrett Lerner, Kathie MacIsaac, and Corrina Allen

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Jarrett: A wise (and funny) person once said that “humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.” And so, today, on the book birthday of my new and hopefully humorous novel, Revenge of the EngiNerds, I thought it might be fun to ignore this sage advice and do some dissecting. Thank you, Kathie and Corrina, for bravely taking part in this ill-advised endeavor!

Kathie: I appreciate the opportunity to be part of the conversation, however ill-advised it may be!

Corrina: Oh my — LOL!  A pleasure to be here!

Jarrett: Humor has always been important to me. In a way, it’s what got me hooked on books and reading in the first place. I still remember every book that my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Lombard, read aloud to our class — novels like The BFG and There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom — and some of my most vivid memories are of listening to him read aloud. Mr. Lombard chose a wide variety of books as read alouds, but all the books contained humor to some extent. And when he came to a humorous part, Mr. Lombard would laugh… and laugh and laugh and laugh. And he had one of those infectious sorts of laughs, and so sooner or later, the whole class was laughing along with him. For me, such experiences drove home just how joyful books could be, and also how reading could be a total blast, and how it could bring people together.

I’m curious: what are your relationships with books that might labeled humorous — as kids, as adults, as a librarian and a teacher?

Kathie: I don’t remember reading a lot of humorous books as a kid. I missed many of the classics by authors like Roald Dahl when I was growing up, and so I didn’t come to humorous books until I was an adult. I had a preconceived notion that funny books equaled potty humor, slapstick comedy, or miserable adults making life hard for children, and had little depth (yeah, I know it’s harsh and unjustified, but it’s what I thought). I just didn’t think funny books were “my thing”, but I challenged myself to read 10 of them last year to see if those stereotypes held up. Boy, was I wrong! There are some absolutely wonderful humorous books out there for young readers, full of depth and tackling real topics and issues in less serious ways. Fenway and Hattie by Victoria J. Coe was the first book that convinced me that yes, I actually had a funny bone, I just need to find the kind of books that tickled it.

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I ALWAYS use funny books at preschool storytime, because I have no fear of being silly, and it helps to bring little ones of their shells.

Corrina: The humor reading that I did as a young child was mostly comic strips. I had all the Calvin & Hobbes collections, and when I visited my uncle’s house, I’d often snag all his Garfield and Far Side books and curl up in a corner reading while the adults talked (and talked…).

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Screen Shot 2019-02-18 at 10.01.48 AM.pngI never sought out what I considered “silly” books, but loved books like Superfudge that had a lot of heart and humor wrapped up in a realistic story. As a teacher, I love sharing a read aloud that will get my students (and myself!) laughing! We’ve read selections from Funny Girl, Fenway & Hattie, and picture books like Mr. Tiger Goes Wild.

Jarrett: As a book-creator and someone who works with kids, I also find that humor can be such a powerful tool both for getting kids reading and then keeping them reading.

Kathie: Books such as Captain Underpants or the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series are HUGELY popular in my library (and I can’t remember the last time I saw our copy of EngiNerds on the shelf because it’s constantly being checked out!). They are the most reread titles, and kids keep coming back to them over and over. Sometimes it’s the only books certain kids will pick up, and I tell parents to let them keep reading them. I also find humorous books are wonderful for dominant or developing readers, because they’re playful and don’t feel like as much “work” to read as some other book for kids who don’t yet love to read.

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Corrina: Absolutely! Books with a lot of humor, especially graphic novels and those with a lot of illustrations like Dog Man or Frazzled are HUGE hits with my 5th graders. And I’ve found that kids will often read a funny book in between longer, more serious books as a “palate cleanser.” And for kids who are going through a tough time, humorous titles can offer a mental break.

Jarrett: Yes! Though at the same time, humor can be so much more than a momentary laugh. Humor is, I think, a lens — a whole way of looking at the world. And it’s the authors who have that humorous lens who I tend to gravitate toward, whose work I fall in love with. And this doesn’t mean their stories are lighthearted — far from it. I find that some of the funniest books are often the darkest and most severe. Geoff Rodkey’s upcoming We’re Not From Here is a great example. It’s premise — that Earth gets blown up and the majority of humans move to Mars, where they live (barely) on borrowed time as they search for a new permanent location elsewhere in the galaxy — is perhaps as dark and dire as it gets. But it’s hilarious.

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Kathie: Sometimes, those serious topics need to be viewed through the lens of humor so that they’re not so intense, and can be more easily processed. Humor also injects hope into dark subjects. You address some serious topics in Revenge of the EngiNerds, such as feeling different from others and like you don’t belong, but the way in which you do so doesn’t feel judgmental or preachy, partly due to the tone.

Jarrett: Exactly! Humor is the HOPE tucked into darker, or even just more serious, subjects. In the EngiNerds books, I tackle some “bigger” issues surrounding friendship. If you care for someone, do their problems become your own? What do you do when a friend is set on doing something wrong? How do you navigate a disagreement that splits a group of friends? Can two people grow up without also growing apart?

I think these are all important, productive questions for kids to consider, both within the space of a book, regarding fictional characters, and also in their own lives. But there are kids out there who wouldn’t be game for such consideration and reflection without there being a hefty dose of humor involved. Though don’t get me wrong — I definitely don’t think of humor as the sugar that makes the medicine go down, or anything like that. I mostly write humor for humor’s sake, because I love it, and believe in it. Really, humor is the only way that I, as a writer, can approach bigger, tougher topics myself.

Corrina: We’re Not From Here is incredible! And some of the most loved books in my class are a mix of dark and light – like Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, Restart, Ghost, or Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus.  

Jarrett: I think the darkest situations actually contain the most comedic potential. Lots of creators know this, and use it to their advantage. Humor is the great leveler — it can quickly and effectively create common ground, and can reduce the distance we feel between ourselves and others. Think about it. Have you ever been in public, and something funny happens, and you share a laugh with a stranger? It creates a connection. A bond, however fleeting. After that shared laugh, you’re far more likely to strike up a conversation with them. You’re closer to them. Humor is disarming, both in real life and in books. It makes us — as people, as readers — open ourselves up a bit wider, feel comfortable being a little more vulnerable than before. If they’re smart, an author will hit you with something decidedly unhumorous after going for a laugh. You’ll feel it that much more. Jerry Spinelli is a master at this, and more recently, Dusti Bowling — and Corrina, I’m sure your students who are fans of Cactus will agree with that! Her books can be as hilarious as they are heartbreaking, and I think they’re heartbreaking in large part because she is so deft with her use of humor.

On another level, I think that searching for the humor (or lightness) among the darkness is a profoundly hopeful, important act — whether you do it as an author or just as a person in your everyday life.

And that, I think, is a pretty good note to close on. Thank you again, Kathie and Corrina, for joining me to talk about all this. I can’t think of a better way to spend my book birthday!

. . .

Jarrett, Kathie, and Corrina are administrators of the MG Book Village. You can learn more about them here.

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