Laughter and Children’s Literature*
AUL HAZARD once wrote, “England could be reconstructed entirely from its children’s books.”
I wish the same observation could be made about our own country in this Bicentennial year. I’m afraid that a key shard of American life would turn up missing. Except for the works of Mark Twain it would be almost impossible to reconstruct the American sense of humor.
Laughter is the natural sound of childhood, but one would hardly suspect it from reading children’s literature. I am reminded of a comedy sketch performed by the late Ernie Kovacs. Browsing silently along a library shelf, he pulled out Camille and opened it. The sound of coughing arose as if from the pages. He moved on to The Three Musketeers. The clank and clash of a sword fight was heard. And so on.
Can you imagine yourself browsing through the children’s room of any library and opening books for the sound of laughter? One would go to the Cs, obviously, for Clemens. And Cleary. To the K’s for Konigsburg. The R’s would yield Raskin. There are others (and I would hope you’d have some luck in the F’s). But, by and large, it would be an exercise in futility.
The reason, at first glance, seems obvious. Laughter, surely, cannot be taken seriously — more about that in a moment. It is frivolous and confectionary and it belongs in the nursery.
Mother Goose is rich in broad comic images: a woman living in a shoe; a cow jumping over the moon; blackbirds flocking out of a pie. My earliest literary memories are funny ones. I remember most vividly the woodman’s wife with the link sausages attached to her nose in “The Three Wishes.” That had me rolling in the aisles — or on the living-room carpet. A little later came Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat and the mad Hatter.
Contemporary comic talent in the picture-story field comes easily to mind — Maurice Sendak, Arnold Lobel, Don Freeman, Bill Peet, David McPhail, Judith Viorst. But once we leave the nursery behind we are expected to shelve childish laughter like outgrown toys. Novels in the eight-to-twelve group seem to tell us that it is time to face real life. And if you remember your Longfellow you know what that is. “Life is rea1!” he wrote, complete with exclamation points in case you weren’t paying attention. “Life is earnest!”
These were certainly the academic mantras of my boyhood. I was assigned “Evangeline” and not long after, Silas Marner and Ivanhoe. If you can find a laugh in any of these works, you have a better sense of humor than I. I was almost fully grown before I discovered that real life may also wear baggy pants and carry a slapstick.
But the writer offers this view of reality at his own risk. Comedy is easily misread as the mere vaudeville of literature. Mark Twain was routinely passed over for the Nobel Prize. Rarely since the 1920’s and Dr. Dolittle have the Newbery judges given recognition to humor. In Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books 1966–1975 (Horn Book), John Rowe Townsend, the English critic, writes, “One lack is very evident in children’s books generally . . . That is the absence of fine, sustained comic writing.”
The trouble, I think, is that laughter is not quite respectable — a little vulgar, perhaps. That was certainly the stately view of George Meredith, who felt uneasy at anything above a smile. Walter Kerr has said that Meredith was “distressed that Oliver Goldsmith should have stooped so low to conquer” with “‘an elegant farce for a comedy.’” Perhaps that’s why Goldsmith is still read and Meredith merely quoted. And not very often at that.
I had better confess that I conceived Jingo Django (Atlantic-Little) as a dark and earnest novel. It was time to become respectable, I thought; I still accepted the majority view that comedy was the lesser of the Greek masks. In this story I was going to deal with a child ruthlessly abandoned by a truly sinister father. Oedipal hatred, orphan house cruelty, a painful and mysterious problem of identity — what raw materials could be more serious?
But a funny thing happened on the way to the typewriter. My resolve gave way to one caprice after another. Only after finishing the novel — it turned out to be a broad, farcical adventure — did I discover for myself the Great Truth. Comedy is tragedy; but it is tragedy in motley.
A stunning example of this is cited by Charles Chaplin in his autobiography. Perhaps the funniest scene ever put on film occurs in The Gold Rush when the starving Chaplin and a fellow miner dine on a hob-nailed shoe. Then his table companion hallucinates, seeing Chaplin as a huge, plump chicken to be similarly parboiled. The inspiration for this scene, as Chaplin reveals it, is a hair-raiser. He had been reading about the snow-trapped Donner Party driven by starvation to eating its footgear and to cannibalism.
Comedy, then, is alchemy; the base metal is always tragedy. War has excited the comic imagination from Aristophanes to Joseph Heller. It was only while preparing this paper that I realized, having written such tall tales as McBroom’s Ghost (Norton) and The Ghost on Saturday Night (Atlantic-Little), that the ludicrous subject was death itself.
It was no accident that the tall tale flourished on the frontier, providing me with the raw material for the various McBroom stories. In laughter, pioneers found a way of accommodating themselves to the agonies that came with the land. Bitter cold? Even words froze in the air. Blowtorch summers? Chickens laid hard-boiled eggs. Raging winds? To pluck a chicken, hold it out a window. Tornadoes, plagues of grasshoppers, swarms of mosquitoes — all were natural subjects for tall-tale humor.
I have found that writers of comedy don’t like to probe too deeply into their elusive and sometimes mysterious sources. They are in the position of the centipede asked by an admiring frog how he (she?) moved all those legs with such grace and precision. Since it came naturally, the centipede had never before given the matter a thought. Trying to figure out which leg to move when, the centipede entirely lost the fine art of walking.
But I will take a limited risk. I know where some ideas in my books come from. I remember my surprise, after writing By the Great Horn Spoon! (Atlantic-Little), at being credited with the most outrageous imagination when I served up the notion that the forty-niners shipped their starched shirts to China for laundering. I thought everyone knew that. It’s true. While saloons were in ample supply in boom-town San Francisco, no one felt a special calling to go into the laundry business. In due time a few Cantonese sailed to California and the source of the soiled haberdashery; others followed, and I suspect that out of this historical fluke arose the stereotype of the Chinese laundryman.
I had always regarded history as dignified as all get-out, but with this incident I discovered that the past assays out fairly rich in comic ore. In an old copy of the Missouri Historical Review I sifted out an incomparable petty schemer, a man caught stealing his neighbor’s land by moving the rail fence at night, a few inches at a time. He became a key, though off-stage character, in Jingo Django, when Jingo and Mr. Peacock-Hemlock-Jones go tumbling across the country in search of a cache of Mexican gold coins buried under a fence post. You can imagine what happens and why, when my heroes go rooting around in that post hole.
In the last century the Missouri River jumped its bank in an act of pure comedy. A thriving tavern on the Missouri side awoke to find itself in dry Kansas. This provided me with the first faint stirrings of Humbug Mountain, a novel-in-progress. I have enlarged upon the incident, cross-pollinating it with the history of mad speculation in town-building and lot-selling on the frontier. As you might guess, my raffish entrepreneur makes the mistake of staking out his rip-roaring metropolis-to-be on the Missouri. At the moment he’s still trying to unload those cursed dry Kansas lots.
Folklore is rich in humor. The old belief that one born at midnight has the power to see ghosts set me on this train of thought. What if pirates threw their murdered captain into the same pit with buried treasure? What if they lost the map? It’s another superstition that the murdered rest uneasy and walk their grave sites until avenged. Now I had it. What if my young hero were born at the stroke of midnight? Using his ghost-seeing gift, the pirates would know where to dig for the lost treasure. The result of this assortment of folklore and “what ifs” was The Ghost in the Noonday Sun (Atlantic-Little).
My favorite scene in Chancy and the Grand Rascal (Atlantic-Little) occurs when my heroes come across a chuck-wagon cook about to drown a sack of kittens. Uncle Will, the grand rascal, declares that one can tell the time by reading a cat’s eyes. This is a folklore belief. The cook is persuaded and holds out one kitten as a timepiece. But what of the rest of the litter? The grand rascal advises the man to hang on to the entire litter. “I’ve known cats to run slow and run fast,” he says.
Folklore once again provided me with the basic idea for Longbeard the Wizard (Atlantic-Little), a picture book. I was reading a museum-published biography for an exhibit of the paintings of Chaim Soutine. A sentence leaped out at me. Soutine was affected by a folk belief that we are born to speak a certain and unknown number of words; when we use them up, we die. An irresistible idea. Enter Queen Gibble-Gabble, unaware that she is chattering her way into a sudden grave. Trivia? I think not. The magic power of words runs through all cultures.
It is American folklore that betrays our unconscious rather than our formal literary taste. I find that this common lore breaks down into three general areas — the supernatural; hero tales; and, writ especially large, HUMOR. And these are the delights of childhood. To be safely frightened. To identify with larger-than-life heroes. To laugh. Curiously, tragedy in tragic terms is dealt with almost exclusively in ballads. John Henry, for example, and Casey Jones.
Why, then, has there been so little laughter in children’s books? The trouble seems to stem from a traditional judgment that humor is unpredictable. What some find funny, others may not. That’s true, of course. But the premise is faulty. Why must we like the same books, the same paintings, the same music — the same humor? I was recently told of a boy, somewhat miffed and insulted by one of my McBroom tall tales. “If that story is true,” he protested, “I’m stupid.”
I am happy to be able to say that, while I have not been beating a dead horse, it appears to be a moribund one. If my mail is any indication, editors are now actively seeking out humor. In some schools in California, and perhaps elsewhere, a unit on tall tales is being taught as a legitimate aspect of frontier social history. And last year the National Council of Teachers of English/Children's Book Council joint conference in San Diego scheduled a session on humor in children’s books.
Laughter is the humorist’s applause, and I would like to end with that sweet sound. I am working on a character exhumed from a two-inch display advertisement that appeared during the nineteenth-century in a Fresno, California, newspaper. Here’s history wearing a putty nose.
*Based on speeches given at the 43rd Annual Claremont Reading Conference, Claremont, California, on February 7, 1976, and at the 14th Annual Symposium on Children’s Literature sponsored by the School of Librarianship, University of California at Berkeley, on July 4, 1976.
|Sid Fleischman is a novelist and screenwriter who is also skilled in the art of magic tricks. He has written many humorous tales for children, including Mr. Mysterious and Company, By the Great Horn Spoon! (both Atlantic-Little), and the McBroom stories. He is currently working on a novel to be published by Atlantic-Little, Me and the Man on the Moon-Eyed Horse.
From the October 1976 issue of The Horn Book