Over the weekend, I was reviewing the list of top selling children’s books from last year and I noticed a common characteristic that these popular books shared. No, it wasn’t that these beloved books had been around for years, and in some cases decades, or that they were written by Dr. Seuss, J. K. Rowling, Rick Riodan, Jeff Kenney or Roald Dahl.
All of these books share a common characteristic, the authors successfully employed humor and whimsy to highlight their characters and tell their stories. Humor is a critical element and plays a major role in each of these stories whether it’s a picture book, a collection of short stories for emerging readers or a novel aimed at students in middle school.
This observation triggered me to ask: Why is humor so important in children’s books, and what is the unique role that humor plays in children’s stories?
Immediately, I thought about the role of humor in Willy Claflin’s wacky Maynard Moose stories, the knucklehead antics in Noodlehead Stories, the clever slave stories from High John the Conqueror, and the foolish ways of Juan Bobo. All of these stories are energized by whimsical plot lines and, in many cases, populated by outrageous characters.
After a quick review of the research literature, I found a number of references about how humorous stories can influence a child’s behavior and outlook. As Dr. Paul McGhee states in his book, Understanding and Promoting the Development of Children’s Humor, “children love to play with words” and “The more you support children’s sense of humor at this early stage, the more likely they are to emerge into adolescence and adulthood with a well-developed set of humor skills…”. According to McGhee’s work, finding creative ways to insert humor into stories can help develop a child’s sense of humor.
I also like a point that Tina Tessina, a psychotherapist, raised about how humor can help make it easier to solve difficult life issues or endure threatening situations. She writes in her essay, "The Importance of Humor," “It takes a sense of humor to be able to stumble around in an unfamiliar situation until you figure it out.”
Since childhood is a time for intense learning, exploration and experimentation (in other words "stumbling around"), it makes sense that humor and fun are important attributes that can make the learning process easier, especially when a child is faced with solving challenging problems or reconciling troublesome situations.
The popular website kidshealth.org suggests that humor helps kids see things from other perspectives
and grasp unconventional ways of thinking and maybe even learn not to take themselves too seriously.
We know that adults are important role models for kids so how we employ or practice humor as we encounter complex situations can have a profound impact on a child’s outlook. Being able to call upon humor when one is confronted by an absurd series of events or when feeling overwhelmed by a random set of circumstances can be a valuable resource. In fact, modeling this skill for a child may help enhance his/her ability to use humor as a source of strength later in life when he/she faces challenging circumstances.
Similarly, reading, whether it’s a picture book, a scary story, or a novel typically requires focused engagement and quiet immersion as we suspend disbelief and surrender our imagination to the author. When humor is added to enhance a story’s setting and characters, it has the potential to influence a child’s perspective. In fact, the emotional impact of humor may have a number of long lasting benefits.
When a child experiences an uproarious surprise from an antagonist’s response, enjoys an unexpected, amusing plot twist that turns the action upside down or encounters a mischievous trick played on an unsuspecting villain, the emotional aspects of a story may have a more profound and longer term impact on the child’s cognitive and emotional development.
Engaging a kid’s imagination with humor can also subtly highlight successful strategies for solving problems and making decisions. By forging a deeper emotional connection with humor, the elements of a story become more memorable. So it’s easier for children to readily recall key details about the characters, settings or action.
Whether a story employs subtle touches of whimsy or uses rollicking characters who make outlandish decisions, we’ve looked at a few examples of how humor can impact not only a child’s worldview but also influence how he/she approaches difficult problems.
The benefits of using humor in stories not only helps sustain a child’s attention, humor can also extend beyond the immediate experience to help him/her remember key details, and, in longer terms, the child will learn to apply a sense of humor as an essential life skill to resolve difficult problems.