Sunday, October 3, 2010

Funny Books for Kids

One way to encourage a love of reading in our children is to find that "just right" type of book that will draw them into the story and gently hold them there. Not all books will fascinate all kids. There are children who love each and every book they pick up. And there are children who most decidedly only enjoy certain kinds of books.

There is one type of book, however, that seems to transcend personal preferences: humour.

I am not a literary snob. At least, not when it comes to children's books. I do think that children deserve well-written books with excellent story lines (so there are some books that I can't be bothered to write about), but we can certainly go beyond "the classics" in terms of finding compelling reading for our children.

A friend once asked me to recommend humourous reading material that is not as potty-oriented as Captain Underpants (thus, the birth of this list). We, however, love the dear Captain, and these books are always worth a chuckle or ten (and are quite subversive when it comes to school, so that's kind of fun, too).  So, he still makes this list.

There are many more "very funny" books out there, not so underpanty as C.U, that appeal to kids and are, perhaps, more mom-friendly in terms of read-aloud material. Here are some of our favourites... almost all of them British, and all of them very funny. (And yes, there are other potty-oriented books in this list, so do read the descriptions.)

Sir Gadabout: These stories are about a rather ridiculous but good-hearted knight who is not really suited to his calling. He seems to fall into adventures that look like they won't end well... but they always do. The illustrations by Tony Ross really round out the fun in these stories.

"Sir Gadabout is a walking disaster. Voted the "knight most likely to chop his own foot off in a fight", he shivers in his rusty armour when he has to face the brave Sir Lancelot in a joust. Sir Gads travels with his loyal squire Herbert to the wizard Merlin's cottage to get his ear stuck back in place after the joust, and survives an attack by Merlin's crazed guard turtle. Then, when Queen Guinevere is kidnapped, Sir Gads sets out to save the day! Join the loveable Sir Gadabout, loyal Herbert and Merlin's sarcastic cat, Sidney Smith, on a chaotic quest that will make every listener - child or adult - laugh out loud."

Horrid Henry: What is it about British authors and nasty but compelling characters? Horrid Henry is a rotten child and one can't help feel sorry for his parents and angelic younger brother. However, Henry himself will also tug at your sympathetic heart strings in such adventures as the pink underwear and the opera-karaoke-sleep-over. Tony Ross does a brilliant job of catching the funny bits in his wonderful illustrations. These are not that easy to pin down in North America, but you can find some of them at the Amazons.

Urgum the Axeman: We first became acquainted with Urgum and his author, Kjartan Poskitt, in the brilliant and British Murderous Maths series. Illustrated by Phillip Reeve (of Larklight fame, another fabulous adventure series), these are side-splitting funny. Or so I'm told.

"You'll laugh your head off. Urgum, the Axeman is the fiercest barbarian that the Forgotten Desert has ever known - a legendary hero who once chewed a live bull to death...But one fateful day, Urgum returns home to find that not only has his wife redecorated his cave and installed a bathroom, but she's also produced a ten-year-old daughter. And, as Urgum will find out, Little Molly is a barbarian babe with attitude..."

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency: "When young Arthur Bobowicz brings home a 266-pound live chicken instead of a turkey for Thanksgiving, listeners know they're in for a hilarious tale. Arthur names his new pet Henrietta and teaches her tricks using oatmeal cookies. When Henrietta runs away, Hoboken will never be the same."

Anything by Daniel Pinkwater is fabulous (check out Once Upon a Blue Moose), and this is a very funny book. Some of Pinkwater's stuff is for older kids (my husband fondly remembers reading Pinkwater when he was 11 or 12), just so you know.

We've recently quite enjoyed Pinkwater's The Neddiad and are looking forward to reading the follow-up book, The Yggyssey.

Harry the Poisonous Centipede: Lynn Reid Banks (Indian in the Cupboard) has done it again! This charming series of books about Harry and friends is sure to please - and the illustrations by, ahem, Tony Ross are great.

"This delightfully squirmy story [stars] Harry the Poisonous Centipede in a scary world of flying swoopers, furry biters and the dreaded Hoo-Mins! With wonderful humour and brilliant illustrations by award-winning artist Tony Ross, this is the perfect book for wriggly young readers. "It's a Hoo-Min!" crackled George. "Walking on its hairy-biter feet!" But now it was Harry who felt brave. "Come on! Let's peep at it!"Harry and George's adventures up to the world of Hoo-Mins sparkle with fun and will be a delightfully squirmy experience for all young readers."

Charlie Small: "No one knows the full story of Charlie Small. At least, not yet. His battered journal was found washed up on a remote, windswept shore. And at first we thought it an elaborate hoax. Surely no 8-year-old could have had so many wild adventures, witnessed so many extraordinary things, lived such an incredible life–and still only be eight. And yet . . . there was something so vivid in the telling that we were persuaded to send the journal and some of its boggling content for analysis. And only one conclusion could be drawn. Everything in the journal of Charlie Small is true!"

Our latest favourite, Charlie Small, comes to us from the British Isles and the writing is very good. It's one of those books that are "written" by the protagonist, so we may never know who the real author is. Regardless, my son has enjoyed these books immensely and we are really looking forward to the North American release of more of the titles (that seem to be currently available in the UK!).

Little Wolf: Ian Whybrow's Little Wolf books (cunningly illustrated by the omnipresent Tony Ross) are a hilarious romp and worth the reading.

From Library Journal: "Little Wolf is altogether too well behaved for his fierce wolf family, so they send him to Cunning College to take badness lessons from his Uncle Bigbad, the nastiest wolf of all. However, Little Wolf's education doesn't turn out the way anyone expects, and the result is the fall-down funny (but never preachy) story of a cheerful nonconformist finding a way to be himself." -- Beth Wright

Of course, most everyone knows about Roald Dahl, king of funny stories, and probably has read all his books already. However,  The Twits has to be one of the funniest books I have ever read and it simply must be mentioned on this list.

"They're disgusting and despicable--they're the Twits!" "It's nothing but delicious riddance to rotten rubbish, all deftly illustrated by Quentin Blake. Parents may turn chartreuse or puce at the descriptions of the Twits, but kids will squeal in delighted disgust."--School Library Journal

You may be familiar with Pippi Longstocking, but you may not know about some of Astrid Lindgren's other fabulously funny characters. Meet Karlson, "a funny little man with a propeller on his back, living on the roof". Of course, that right there is a recipe for hilarity. 

Lindgren also created Emil, "the most mischievous child for miles!" We've greatly enjoyed Emil's adventures as he gets himself into (and out of) muddle after muddle.

Again, the Oxford Press version of the books are illustrated by... Tony Ross!

James Howe has struck a perfect note in this funny "horror" book about a paranoid cat, a suggestible dog, and an innocent little bunny (or is he?).

From Amazon: "It all starts when Harold's human family, the Monroes, goes to see the movie Dracula, and young Toby accidentally sits on a baby rabbit wrapped in a bundle on his seat. How could the family help but take the rabbit home and name it Bunnicula? Chester, the literate, sensitive, and keenly observant family cat, soon decides there is something weird about this rabbit. Pointy fangs, the appearance of a cape, black-and-white coloring, nocturnal habits … it sure seemed like he was a vampire bunny. When the family finds a white tomato in the kitchen, sucked dry and colorless, well … Chester becomes distraught and fears for the safety of the family..."

Angie Sage, author of the Septimus Heap books, has written a series of fun and spooky books for younger readers.

Araminta Spookie is a girl who lives in a house with her crabby aunt, vampish uncle, a ghost named Edmund, and lots of bats. There are lots of semi-goulish (but not scary), amusing adventures to be had.

Cornelia Funke, author of Dragon Rider and Inkheart, has also written a fun and accessible series of ghostly wonders for younger readers: The Ghosthunters. Again, these stories are spooky but not scary. And they are also quite funny and very well written.

"Nine-year-old Tom Tomsky can't catch a break: He's a klutz, his sister Lola pretty much hates his guts, and--this is a big "and"--he just found a ghost camping out in his cellar. Lucky for Tom his grandma's best friend just happens to be the world's foremost ghosthunter."

You can't get any more "potty" humoured than The Day My Butt Went Psycho by Australian author, Andy Griffiths. This book is fairly raucous but well-done for the genre. You may want to wait until your child is old enough to tackle this on his own if butts (and toilets) aren't your thing. From the back cover: "An epic tale of one brave boy and his crazy, runaway butt. Can Zack save the earth from butts gone beserk? Can he defeat the biggest, ugliest, meanest butt the world has ever seen? More important -- will Zack and his butt ever find true happiness? It's an adventure you and your butt will never forget." The first in a series (be warned).

Blobheads, by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell (of Ottoline, The Edge Chronicles,  and Muddle Earth), is a combination of mild potty humour and aliens. Yes, aliens. "Are there aliens in your toilet? Billy Barnes has found Blobheads in his bathroom! Blobheads are weird, purple aliens from the planet Blob. They arrived in Billy's toilet through an alpha-gamma space-time wormhole. And they're on a very important mission. Kerek and Zerek are highly intelligent inter-galactic beings. Their companion Derek inter-galactic being. They're trying to find the Most High Emperor of the Universe. And they think they're going to discover him in Billy's bathroom...Incredibly funny and original stuff from the ever-more successful creators of The Edge Chronicles, now in one big fat volume." This is a series.

You're a Bad Man, Mr. Gum Yes, yes he is. And he's also hilarious. From School Library Journal: "Mr. Gum lives in a disgustingly filthy house where "he slept, scowled, and picked his nose and ate it." But his garden is the most beautiful in the town. Why? Some speculate that he likes to garden, but the real reason is the angry fairy who gives him "pan whacks" if the garden isn't perfect. Unfortunately for Mr. Gum, the neighborhood dog, Jake, frequently messes up the garden, causing Mr. Gum too many whacks with the frying pan. So Mr. Gum leaves spoiled cow hearts laced with rat poison and sweetened with lemonade powder in the center of the lawn. Jake takes the bait, but is ultimately saved by nine-year-old Polly and some magic chocolate (a questionable remedy, since chocolate is dangerous to dogs). With its quirky cast of characters and silly sense of humor, this story is a great choice for reluctant readers." —Stephanie Farnlacher.  There are several Mr. Gum books on the market, with more coming out all the time.

Measle Stubbs is another one of those fabulous and funny British characters. Author, Ian Ogilvy, has created a classic tale that is both normal and fantastic. From the back cover: "Measle Stubbs is not a boy known for his good luck. He's thin and weedy and hasn't had a bath for years -- and he has to live with is horrible old guardian, Basil Tramplebone. Just when things can't get any worse, he's zapped into the world of Basil's toy train set. There's something lurking in the rafters and a giant cockroach is on his trail -- it's times like these you need a few friends... and a plan!" This is fantastic series is being rereleased one volume at a time (the first two are out now).

Toad Rage by Australian Morris Gleitzman is the first in a series of books about cane toads. From School Library Journal: This book is "about a young cane toad's daring quest to change humankind's hatred for his species. After watching one of his favorite uncles deliberately flattened beneath the wheels of a car, Limpy (so-named for a bum leg which was "a bit squashed" after his own unlucky run-in with a car) sets off to find a way to reverse the human view of cane toads. The gross-out humor and short chapters make this an ideal choice for boys and reluctant readers. Kids might need a little help with some of the Australian dialect (e.g. "petrol station"), but they will delight in the tale and cheer on this unlikely hero." – Jennifer Iserman

NERDS is a new offering from Michael Buckley. "NERDS combines all the excitement of international espionage with all the awkwardness of elementary school, and the results are hilarious. A group of unpopular fifth graders run a spy network from inside their school. With the help of cutting-edge science, they transform their nerdy qualities into incredible abilities! Their enemies? An array of James Bond–style villains, each with an evil plan more diabolical and more ridiculous than the last. Publishers Weekly raved: “Buckley has a flair for exaggerated humor.” School Library Journal said: “Funny, clever, and thoroughly entertaining.”" This is a book for ages 9+. And there's a sequel!

The suggestions above are just a starting point as you find out which books most appeal to your kids. A good children's library or a children's book specialist at a bookstore will be able to add more suggestions to this list... in fact, we found many of the above books through the helpful staff at KidsBooks in Vancouver and Bolen's Books in Victoria.

Happy reading!