Writing Funny

Hooray! I’ve got two books out in America! How great is that? One is a mock Victorian children’s fantasy called The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow. The other—Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage—is set in a magical world, with witches and stuff. Nobody gets really hurt and good firmly triumphs over bad. I hope American kids find them funny, because funny is what I do. Character and plot are important, but above all I want to raise a smile. Here in the U.K., I’m best known for a series about a witch called Pongwiffy who lives with a talking hamster.

Funny books have enjoyed a bit more press in the U.K. recently, thanks to the lovely Michael Rosen (our previous Children’s Laureate) who came up with the inspired idea of a Funny Prize. I got to be a judge, which is why I love him. Those of us who write funny books can now crawl in from the comedy wilderness, which is a dry wasteland peppered with unexpected canyons, cartoon cactuses and people doing pratfalls.

It’s high time funny books were taken seriously. They are regularly overlooked in the major prizes. Short-listed, maybe. But they rarely win. When the winner is announced, the hopeful smiles fade from the lips of us poor old funny writers. Some of us have been known to weep. Or is that just me?

Isn’t it shallow to care so much, you ask? Yes, but we’re all human and everyone needs the occasional pat on the back and a glass decanter. Or a decent review in the national press.

I’d love to write a proper, serious book dealing with real life issues and ending with a big, fat, Uplifting Message. Then I’d win prizes and everyone would think I was deep. But I can’t. Funny is what I like to read and what I want to write. Especially when combined with fantasy, my other love.

It all begins in childhood, doesn’t it? You discover a funny book. You read it and you’re hooked. I was a child in the fifties. The first book I remember laughing at was Nicholas Thomas, by Kitty Styles. It featured a naughty kitten whose tail was “curiously crooked with questions.” I loved that phrase. My American relations sent me Raggedy Anne and Raggedy Andy. It had a Wiggysnoop in it, and a Snoopwiggy. Such names!

I read a lot of books by Enid Blyton, which were easy but not very funny, because she didn’t write in a funny way. Then I discovered a golden seam of stories featuring naughty boys. (Boys, you note. Never girls.) There was Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings, followed by the wonderful Molesworth. But Just William by Richmal Crompton really did it for me. I loved that boy with a passion. There was a funny girl in it too, called Violet Elizabeth. She didn’t know she was funny, which made it even better.

Those books made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe. I read them at night, under the covers. I’m still the same. I constantly search for funny books, because although I love film and television, books are still best. A book is private, like a secret joke whispered into your ear. You can wander around with a book, eating toast and quietly tittering. Or slump down for ten minutes with the cat.

Being around kids for most of my life (I was once a teacher and have a daughter, now grown up) I’ve found that their sense of humor varies. Some kids like dry, knowing humor. Some prefer blatantly daft stuff. Kids find things funny that adults don’t, like bathroom functions. Most boys like anything with bums in. Not so many girls.

Some things are universally funny. Young, old, both sexes, everyone finds them hilarious. Sausages. Penguins. Ducks. We can all agree about those.

But what about clowns?

I like posh people falling over. It gets me every time. But all those kids’ books out there featuring underpants leave me cold. I don’t like things too gross, because I can be surprisingly prim. A lot of boys will disagree with me there. Fair enough, each to his own. Actually, I should admit that I sometimes put pants in my own books. But only in context. I use them lightly.

When I read, I want to feel like I could be best friends with the author. Chuckling away, sharing the jokes, relishing a clever turn of phrase, an unexpected plot twist or a character with a great line in repartee.

I found all this in William. Crompton didn’t write down to children. She didn’t patronize. She used long, grown up words. Her characters sounded real. I can hear their voices in my head. I can quote some of the lines. She brightened my childhood, which was sometimes grim. I still want to be a member of the Outlaws.

I suppose I write for the kid that still lives inside me. I remember how it feels to be nine, helpless with giggles, lost in your own, joyful little world where cross words can’t reach.

That’s another thing. Humor helps you with real life problems. You can deal with them or escape from them.

There. I’ve ended on a serious note. I’ll knock my cup of tea all over my computer. That’ll make you laugh.

Kaye Umansky has written over a hundred books for children of primary age. Best known in the U.K. for the very funny Pongwiffy series, she has also written novels, poetry, plays, musicals and a number of popular music books, including Three Rapping Rats, which won the Times Educational Supplement Schoolbook Award for Primary Music. Her novel The Silver Spoon of Solomon Snow won the 2005 Spoken Word Award. Clover Twig won the Stockton Book Of The Year 2009.

She taught in primary schools for many years, specialising in music and drama. She has written full time for the last twenty years and lives in London with her husband, daughter and two cats called Heathcliff and Jeremy.


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