Monday, 31 March 2014

Kidding Around: by Julia Wills

How comic writer Morris Gleitzman helps children face difficult things

As a comic writer for children and starting my Master’s course soon after the long decline and death of my mother with Alzheimer’s, perhaps it was unsurprising that the topic I chose to research was how humour helps children cope with seriously unfunny issues in their lives, particularly in the work of Morris Gleitzman.

Laughter is important at any age, but how much more can it offer the child reader, already so less empowered to deal with the big stuff than we are, to have that someone between the pages, calling them in and making them laugh about the things that worry them, thereby shrinking those problems and offering the child the sense that they can master their fears, too?

Much has been written about humour and three big theories still dominate.  Superiority Theory says we laugh at someone because we feel smarter than them; Incongruity Theory holds that funny is when we are surprised by two contradictory things coming together; Relief Theory maintains that we laugh at the things that scare us. 

Whilst none of these theories on its own can explain every instance of what we find funny, I felt that Relief Theory seemed most likely to answer my particular question, not least because a model of children’s humour proposed by Wolfenstein[1], with its roots in the same theory, seemed able to neatly explain why, unlike adult’s humour, which tends to remain fixed, children’s humour changes as they grown up.  

In short, Wolfenstein linked children’s laughter to fear.  Her theory explained why a very young child mastering toilet training finds potty jokes hilarious whilst a slightly older child, grappling with language, revels in puns and riddles that play with words.  By laughing at the things that worry them, Wolfenstein maintained, the child gains an affective mastery over them.

So, I wondered, was this also something that happened when they read a humorous book about a difficult situation?

Interestingly, when a child reaches school age, a time when socialisation is much greater, homemade jokes are discarded in favour of ready-made ones.  Might this mean that when they are becoming aware of some of life’s more unpleasant realities – such as death, loneliness, divorce – a ready-made fictional character in a book, rather than a joke, allows them to gain control over their own issues?

Morris Gleitzman, a children’s author of more than thirty books, has achieved the remarkable feat of making the most extraordinarily difficult subjects funny.  His stories deal with topics as gloomy as parents’ over-ambition for their children, euthanasia, famine and crippling loneliness.   In “Two Weeks with the Queen,” Colin’s brother is terminally ill; in “Bumface” Angus’s mother forces him to become a substitute parent for two under-fives.  Yet, without a doubt, the books are laugh-out loud funny. 

So if the character is allowing the reader the opportunity for the affective mastery that Wolfenstein talks about, how do they do it?

According to the writer John Vorhaus[2], despite coming in all shapes and sizes, comic characters have one thing in common: comic distance.  This is their out-of-stepness with reality and us.  It might be physical - the crazy clothes and red noses that clowns wear, or the fact that The Simpsons are bright yellow.   Or it could be an exaggerated trait – Harold Lloyd was accident prone, but it was the exaggeration of that flaw that led him to hand off a civic clock-face a hundred feet above the city.  In Gleitzman’s work the comic distance comes from the main character’s attitude: the distance between the reality of a situation and the child’s perception of it.  The character’s misguided “Can-do!” determination inevitably leads to things becoming funny.

In Gleitzman’s “Two Weeks with the Queen,” rather than accept the reality of his brother’s plight, Colin decides that the doctor is wrong.  A better doctor, he decides, would be able to cure Luke.  Such a doctor must obviously be really smart, like the one who looks after the Queen of England.  Consequently it’s not long until Colin happens on the “obvious” solution of breaking into Buckingham Palace (with the help of a few tools from his uncle’s workbox) to have a chat with her. 

In “Bumface” Angus is desperate to stop his mum having any more children for him to look after.  All he really wants is to be a pirate in the school play and not have to be mum’s “Mr Reliable”.  His desperation to “fix” the problem even sends him to the Family Planning Clinic to try and sort supplies for her. 

In both these stories, as in the rest of Gleitzman’s oeuvre, it is his astonishing ability to use hilarity to bring home the characters’ plights in a way that no amount of writerly hand-wringing ever could that sets them apart.  The characters’ attitudes give the reader license to laugh.  But do they give the reader affective mastery too?

Significantly, in both books, the child cannot fix the problem.  Colin’s quest leads him to a man whose partner is dying of AIDS and the realisation he must accept Luke’s fate.  Angus befriends another child whose parents are pre-determining her path and together they “break free” as children.

And this, I think, is where the true affective mastery lies.

In correspondence with Gleitzman, he told me that he “liked to write humour that helps young readers feel that insoluble problems won’t crush them and celebrates their capacity to never give up on the rest of life”.

In conclusion then, the humour in his books doesn’t seek to give the reader an emotional control over a particular problem in question.  His books don’t say, “Laugh at this and it will no longer be a problem”.  Much more importantly, it offers them a more sophisticated sort of mastery: the insight ­- through laughter - that beating every problem isn’t possible, but that choosing to remain optimistic despite them, is.

And I can’t think of a better use of humour, or indeed a more important “mastery”, to help a young person through life.  Can you?

[1] Wolfenstein, Martha Children’s Humour: A Psychological Analysis, Glencoe III, Free Press.
[2] Vorhaus, J. The Comic Tool Box: How to be funny even if you’re not (Los Angeles: Silman-James Press, 1994)


John Dougherty said...

I found this really interesting, Julia. Like you, I'm a great admirer of Gleitzman's work; I think he's a really important writer who's probably very much under-appreciated and underrated because his books are funny, when in fact - as you say - there are very, very few writers capable of dealing with serious issues the way he does.

Anne Booth said...

I think Maurice Gleitzman is a genius - and I have only read 'Once', 'Then' and 'Now'. I really want to read both those stories you mention.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Morris Gleitzman is a fabulous writer - I've read quite a few of his books, which are very popular in my school library. The current top borrowed ones are the Once books, but they love the others too. They're funny and sad at the same time and personally, I much prefer the Once series to The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas and Boy Overboard and Girl Underground to anything by Deborah Ellis. (Though Deborah Ellis is currently much borrowed too in my library).

JO said...

Books are a wonderful way to help children understand difficult things, and Gleitsman's work is invaluable.

Many years ago, when I worked with troubled children, I knew a little boy (aged 4) whose father was in prison - and it was during the riots, so he believed his daddy lived on a roof, and worried that he's fall off. I couldn't find any books for children in this position - nor could I interest a publisher when I said I'd write one. They are a neglected - and very needy - group. I wonder if there's anything for them now?

Emma Barnes said...

Thanks for a fascinating post. I've tended to think of humour in children's books in terms of "incongruity theory" - without knowing that was the name for it! But I can see that humour is a way of dealing with frightening things too. I particularly enjoy reading (and writing) humorous fiction about families - and of course, now I think about it, family life also produces lots of strong emotions (sibling jealousy for one) that although they may not be life-threatening (hopefully) may need a helpful dose of humour too.

Penny Dolan said...

Julia, what a brilliant post. You point out the wise qualities of Gleitzman's humour so accurately. Sounds a good course, too.