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Funny books : Why educators should not overlook them

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Funny books seem to have an irresistible pull on children.  I would often find them giggling together over a picture book or trading copies of the stories they had been reading with friends.  Funny stories are very often the ones I’m asked to read on repeat at bedtimes.  So why is it that they seem so undervalued as teaching tools or as worthy independent reading choices?

The physiological and psychological benefits of laughter are well-documented. One of the main physiological effects of laughing is the production of endorphins which promote a sense of well-being and help relieve stress.  Laughter can also help counteract feelings of anxiety or anger in children.  When we smile, levels of one of the body’s stress hormones, cortisol, are reduced.  All of these effects are very beneficial to a person’s mental health.  In an age where schools are paying increasing attention to the mental health and emotional well-being of their pupils, laughter would surely be a powerful tool to utilise in the classroom – and what better way to do that than through funny books?

The Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report 2014 found that, of the group of children aged 6-17-years-old who were surveyed, 63% said that a book which would make them laugh was the top thing they looked for when picking a new book. For both genders, in all age categories. Humour was also the top-rated characteristic looked for by parents when picking books for their children, with 55% stating that as their top priority.  So it would seem that funny books are as popular with parents as with their children.

Unsurprisingly, when asked about their favourite authors or series, the children cited some of the big names of children’s literature such as David Walliams, Julia Donaldson, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Jacqueline Wilson.  Furthermore, at the time of writing, seven out of the ten top-selling children’s titles (as reported in The Bookseller) would be classed as ‘humorous.’

  Figure 1 – Favourites of readers aged 6-8         

      Figure 2 – Favourites of readers aged 9-12

It would seem foolish for schools not to tap into this love of funny books and use it to help develop their reading for pleasure culture and to incorporate some into their reading curriculums – demonstrating to pupils that all forms of reading are valued, is a powerful tool. In light of the demands of the national curriculum, schools are rightly concerned about challenge and reading stamina and are so well-placed to help broaden pupils’ reading habits by suggesting alternate funny titles and authors which may not be as readily available for the pupils and their families to purchase or borrow.  A carefully chosen funny book, loaned by the school, could address both these issues.

EYFS: Ten Fat Sausages Michelle Robinson Tor Freeman (illus.)

This book is a wickedly funny take on the classic counting rhyme which, rather than seeing the poor sausages go pop then bang, finds them plotting various ways to leap out of the frying pan and (unfortunately often) into the fire.  Children will love joining in with the repeated refrain and trying to predict what fate might befall the wily wieners next. So good that it won the Scholastic Laugh Out Loud Funny Book Award for best picture book this year!

KS1: ‘You’re Called What?!’ by Kes Gray, illustrated by Nikki Dyson (Macmillan Children’s Books)

I love that this book is a clever mix of an information book about unusually-named animals and downright hilarious. Readers are taken on a tour of the Ministry of Silly Animal Names where comically-titles creatures can go to change their names when they’re fed up of being laughed at. Fascinating and featuring lesser-known creatures like the ice cream cone worm and the pink fairy armadillo, pupils will learn plenty whilst they laugh their socks off.

Lower KS2: ‘Charlie Changes Into a Chicken!’ by Sam Copeland, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Puffin Books)

This is one of those very special books which, as well as having the ability to make any reader snort with laughter, also addresses some potentially difficult situations with great sensitivity. Charlie is hiding a secret.  A big one.  When he gets anxious, he changes into an animal – a chicken, a pigeon, a rhino! Unfortunately, he has a lot to be anxious about: his brother’s ill in hospital, his parents are panicking, and the school bully has him in his sights.  The glorious illustrations spread generously throughout the text contribute greatly to the hilarity and readability of this text.  

Sam Copeland has written a great Writing Starter for Just Imagine which you can see here

Upper KS2: ‘The Super Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates,’ by Jenny Pearson, illustrated by Rob Biddulph (Usborne Books)

Freddie Yates is fact fiend and it’s a fact that since his gran passed away and his dad ran himself over with his own post van, Freddie’s been overcome by an urge to find his biological father. With the summer holidays and the prospect of being separated from his best friends for several weeks looking large, Freddie decides now’s the time to seize the moment and head for Wales. With only a change of underpants and pocket change between them, the trio set off on the madcap adventure of a lifetime.

I hope that this article has made you consider why the profile and value of funny books should be raised in your settings, and how the selection of humorous reading choices available could be expanded to provide breadth and challenge.