guest post by Jackie Friedman Mighdoll
When you do a library search for books in the category “Kids’ Literature: Humor,” you find a wide range from Appleblossom the Possum through Zombie Butts from Uranus. And the sense of humor in them ranges, too. I’ve been looking for humor tactics for my own writing, so I decided to try a close reading to identify elements that made me smile and laugh.
I love Kate diCamillo’s gentle humor and poignancy. (Kristi has written about her use of comedic set up in one of my favorites–Flora and Ulysses). I decided to look at her techniques in a chapter book, Francine Poulet Meets the Ghost Raccoon, to find techniques to try in my own writing.
This chapter book stars Francine Poulet, who comes from a family of successful animal control officers. Despite her lineage and her own many accomplishments in the field, she loses her nerve and self-confidence when faced with a glowing raccoon who seemingly screams her name from the rooftop. The premise of the book itself is funny, but it’s the humor that’s woven through the text that I most appreciate.
Looking closely at the text, I found 7 techniques (among others!) that made me smile.
DiCamillo has said that she loves naming characters. “Making up names is the only part of writing that is easy for me. I love strange names and I love making them up.” Her quirky characters, companies and places have equally amusing names. This book stars Francine Poulet–animal control officer–daughter of Clement Poulet, also animal control. She lives in Gizzford County, works on Fleeker Street and reports to (drumroll worthy) Mordus Toopher. For those of us not as naturally talented in the naming department as DiCamillo, naming–and humorous naming, in particular–may be worth its own close study. Look at the Zs in the middle, the combinations of plosive sounds, the allusions, etc.
2. Exaggeration with specificity
According to comedic wisdom, some numbers are funnier than others–7 trumps 6 for example. Exaggerated specificity creates its own fun. Francine has 47 animal control trophies. She kills 238 flies. She keeps her eye on Fly 239. Not many or lots or all. Two hundred and thirty-eight. The precision adds humor.
3. Repeated phrase (the anticipated unusual)
Mrs. Bissinger, who hires Francine to catch the raccoon, has a verbal tic. “And so on.” If she used it once, it wouldn’t be particularly funny. The humor comes when it’s repeated in different contexts, and when Francine picks it up, too. There’s both a sense of expectation and joy when it arrives. As they say, “And so on.”
4. Creative similes/metaphors
Similes and metaphors work best when they create new connections in a reader’s mind. Mr. Topher’s toupee is a chipmunk pelt. When the metaphors work in multiple ways, some of which surprise us, it’s extra funny. So when Francine’s father told her she was like a refrigerator we might expect that she would be solid. But the fact that he calls her this because she is also certain and humming like a refrigerator adds to the metaphor and fun.
5. Winking philosophical statements
Several of DiCamillo’s novels have a character who spouts philosophy. The grandiose statements seem to come with a wink. Mordus Toopher says to Francine, “And now you have reached this impasse of the soul, this gloomy, doomy time of self-appraisal.” The juxtaposition of the serious statement and the “gloomy doomy” made-up rhyme tickles me.
6. Lists with surprises
There are lists throughout the story–and many are funny. Francine has “officially and expeditiously” captured many types of animals including dogs, cats, rats, chipmunks, squirrels…and fish. Francine goes to work in a store called Clyde’s Bait, Feed, Tackle, and Animal Necessities. At the store, she rings up a long list of items that includes plastic worms and horse bridles. Most of these lists start out normally. Then, the lists become funny when they go longer than we expect and when they include (usually at the punch-line end) items that both fit and also surprise us.
7. Word choice
There’s so much delicious word choice–and word creation–in the book. My favorite is the squiffy feeling Francine gets in her stomach when she’s questioned. Her heart skitters and stutters. The flies bedevil. This book begs to be read aloud.
And a surprise ending
So these are seven techniques I picked out to try myself for humor’s sake. But as I wrote this up, I realized that there’s one more meta one: repetition!
Many of the above examples are repeated throughout the story–as is. So, the refrigerator metaphor comes up three times. The word squiffy is used twice. Forty-seven trophies is referred to four times. It turns out repetition and amplification is a basic comedic technique in stand-up and improv. And it works in chapter books and middle grade novels, too.
So once you think you’ve got a funny line, it seems worth it to try it again. It might get even funnier.
Jackie Friedman Mighdoll writes poetry, middle-grade novels, and far too many emails. She grew up with the Northern Lights and now lives in San Francisco near a rainbow crosswalk. She loves languages and does her best to express her appreciation of dessert wherever she is in the world.
Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I’m always trying to add humor to my writing so very helpful.
So glad it helped! One of my other humor mentor texts is Gary Schmidt’s Pay Attention, Carter Jones. I love breaking down what works. It feels like magic, doesn’t it?
I just found this website via a fellow VCFA student. This is an incredibly thoughtful analysis of Ms. Poulet. I love these Deckawoo Drive spinoffs (as well as the Mercy Watsons, of course!). I’m doing a deep-dive into chapter books right now. So happy to have your analysis to churn up new ways of looking at what I’m reading.