Monday, 11 June 2012

Why Funny Books Don’t Win Prizes – by Emma Barnes

Funny books aren’t taken seriously by prize committees.

This was the point that Julia Eccleshare recently addressed in her Guardian blog, raised by a reader who had been casting her eye over this year’s Carnegie shortlist.  The Carnegie is the UK’s longest established and probably still most prestigious prize for children’s fiction.  It is chosen by librarians – the adult children’s book establishment.  And so it really does matter what kind of books they choose.

As Julia Eccleshare acknowledged, the shortlist featured books about warring states, bereavement, terrorist attacks, poverty and corruption.  There really wasn’t a lot of light relief.

Now, I like funny books.   When I read children’s books for my own delight, it is the funny ones I take down from the shelf.  I defy anyone to feel glum, while reading a copy of The Church Mice Adrift or Dougal’s Scottish HolidayAdrian Mole Aged 13 and 3/4 is the title guaranteed to make me split my sides laughing: however flu-ridden, I am likely to end up falling out of bed.

Not only do I like reading them, I try and write humorous books myself.

Intrigued, I went and cast my eye over winners of the Carnegie.  The only recent title that leaped out at me as clearly comic was Terry Pratchett's The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, the winner in 2001.  That’s eleven years ago.  Not that recent, then.

In 1991, Anne Fine – a comic writer of genius, in my opinion - won with Flour Babies.  Only actually that was a rather sombre title about the unfunny subject of parental responsibility (not one of her best, I'd say, and nothing like as good or as funny as the brilliant Diary of a Killer Cat).   Before that, Gene Kemp in 1977 (for the truly wonderful The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler) was the last outright funny author to win the award.

As Julia Eccleshare points out, the Roald Dahl award now exists specifically for funny books.  But it was invented because funny books were being excluded from the mainstream shortlists.  And funny books shouldn’t be stuck in some kind of ghetto .  A truly funny book is a joy forever – and more than that, it’s a bloody good book!

Myths about Funny Children’s Books

They don’t have anything interesting to say about political and social issues

Read Adrian Mole – it probably gives a far better impression of Britain in the 1980s, the economic hardships and political debates, than other children’s books of the time.

They are not sophisticated, but all about farts and poo-jokes

Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe saga is an incredibly witty series – full of elaborate puns and jokes referencing Shakespeare and other luminaries of the English lit canon.  Or look at Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings if you want elaborately funny plots worthy of PG Wodehouse. Or Graham Oakley for superbly witty illustrations.

They don’t tackle difficult themes

The brilliantly funny The Worst Children in the World: the Best Christmas Pageant Ever is about (I reckon) poverty, social exclusion and the all-inclusive possibilities of religious belief, all told in the form of a hilarious story about a Nativity Play.  Top that if you can!

They don’t need prizes – they will be popular anyway

That may be true of some - Horrid Henry or Mr Gum - but a Newbury Prize (the American Carnegie equivalent) might have helped the brilliantly funny Fudge books or The Best Christmas Pageant Ever to become better known outside their native land, and a Carnegie might have helped the wonderful Catweazle or Jennings books to stay in print.

(And these days, when authors and series are axed much more quickly if the sales aren't coming through, there is no time for the slow-burn build of word-of-mouth.  Being overlooked at first can mean an author never makes the big time.)

It’s not hard to write a funny book

This is a widely held view about both adult and children’s books.  And wrong.  I’d submit it’s far easier to write a tragic tale than a comedy.  Kill off a child – better yet an animal – you will make the reader cry.  But to make them laugh?  That’s real craftsmanship.  To prove my point have a look at Joan Lennon’s blog where she quotes the master comic craftsman PG Wodehouse.

 Brilliantly funny stories that never won the Carnegie Prize

Crummy Mummy and Me

Hilarous stories about a punk mother and a daughter old before her time.  I especially like the story with the squashed dog.

(Also look out for Fine's wonderful Diary of a Killer Cat series and the Summer House Loon – her first novel, and a masterpiece.)

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing

The first of the hilarious Fudge books.  One of the biggest selling books ever in the US – but could be better known in Europe, where we think Blume is all about bras and puberty.

The Legend of Spud Murphy

Manages to make a story about going to the local library absolutely hilarious. 

Dougal’s Scottish Holiday

How wee Dougie takes the Magic Roundabout gang to Scotland – who knew golf could be this funny?  Eric Thompson's other titles are equally good.

Adrian Mole Aged 13 and ¾

Recently voted by Radio 4 readers as their favourite comic novel – reckon it’s my favourite too.

The Church Mice Adrift

Humphrey the mouse lecturing the revolting rats on Etiquette at the Court of King Louis XIV and nearly getting nobbled for his pains – it’s class, pure class.