In his essay, “Hypocritical Theory,” in Manhood for Amateurs, Michael Chabon opens with the provocative, “I hate Captain Underpants.” Yes, Chabon agrees the popular series written by Dav Pilkey is “lively, well crafted and snappily designed,” and if he was a kid, he’d probably love the books, too. Really, how could he not enjoy the two potty-minded fourth grade boys who invent Super Diaper Baby? What he hates is that the series has co-opted the gross humor that kids use, typically out of earshot of adults. “The original spirit of mockery has been completely inverted; it is now the adult world that mocks children, implicitly and profitably, speaking its old language, invoking its bygone secret pleasures,” writes Chabon.
If Chabon has trouble with Captain Underpants, he’s probably having a big hissy fit over the scores of books that have followed suit. Writers and publishers have taken note that humor is the way to a kid’s (especially a boy’s) reading heart. Just this morning, as I drove the carpool of third-grade boys to school, one boy was holding court by reading from The Encyclopedia of Immaturity (full of silly tricks and pranks—how to make noises with different body parts; how to really annoy your older sibling; and the all-important, how to hang a spoon off your nose).
Since the genie has been let out of the bottle, and since April is National Humor Month, I’ve put together a list of some recently published books that will keep your kid laughing (and reading).
By Erik Craddock
Erik Craddock is out with #7 in his Stone Rabbit graphic novel series, with its central character a zany, quick-witted rabbit. In #7 Dragon Boogie, when the electricity goes out, Stone Rabbit and his buddies have to play a boring board game, Dragon & Stuff. They unknowingly roll a pair of magical die, and poof! they are transported to the world of the game itself, with wizards and knights, and a dragon with a “bad case of stink breath” who takes offense at being called fat. Eventually they confront the Lord of Darkness, and the fight is on, with one of their weapons being, of course, a “mighty fart.” (Ages 7-10. Publisher: Random House Children’s Books)
By Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Jarrett J. Krosoczka is back with #7, Lunch Lady and the Mutant Mathletes. This time the Breakfast Bunch joins the mathletes team (punishment for skipping out of a field trip). The team makes it to the final round against the defending champs from Willowby Academy. But Lunch Lady is suspicious—why do all the Willowby students have the “same weird green eye color?” And in the classroom of the Willowby teacher who heads up the math team, why is there a strange switch under his desk that opens the chalkboard? Lunch Lady pulls the switch. Biopods! “What in the horseradish?!” says Lunch Lady. The Breakfast Bunch isn’t competing against real humans! When the Breakfast Bunch’s team wins, all heck breaks loose, and Lunch Lady has to whip out the Smoke Can of Peas, Pancake Disk, and Jelly Bean Shrapnel to save the day. (Ages 7-10. Publisher: Random House)
By Andrew Norriss; illustrated by Hannah Shaw
I Don’t Believe It, Archie! by Andrew Norriss and illustrated by Hannah Shaw, doesn’t rely on the poop-booger-fart type of funny to engage its readers. Instead, Archie finds himself in one wacky situation after another. On Monday, he helps someone trapped in a car because a piano rolled down the hill and stopped right by the car door. As soon as he thinks that problem is solved, a truck dumps a pile of gravel on top of the car. On Wednesday, he heads to the library and his hands get super-glued to the door. And on Friday, well, I’m not going to say much more other than it involves a leopard on the loose. (Ages 7-10 . Publisher: Random House Children’s Books)
By John Kleopfer
In The Zombie Chasers: Sludgment Day by John Kleopfer, (book #3 in this series) a zombie virus has turned Zack parents and neighbors and most of the country into zombies. Zack and his friends have the antidote, but will they be devoured by the gross creatures first? The humor comes with Kleopfer diving into the gory details of zombies. “The zombie sneered back at him, revealing its hideously decomposed chompers. A nasty boil exploded like a lava bubble on the old codger’s pulsating cheekbone.” And also the drawings, which make the grossness, well, vivid. (Ages 8-12. Publisher: HarperCollins)
By Lincoln Peirce
Big Nate Goes for Broke by Lincoln Peirce is #4 in the Big Nate series (and ranked high on my son’s birthday-wants list). Sixth-grader Nate is the first person narrator, and like the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, the humor comes from Nate’s take on school life. Here’s his partial list of lame clubs at school: “Knit Pickers—a group of girls (boys can join, too, but let’s get real) who like to knit clothes. Why it’s lame: Aren’t there already enough butt-ugly sweaters in the world? Wizards & Witches—for kids that are really into the whole “fantasy” thing. Why it’s lame: Wearing a bath towel around the school yard and pretending it’s a cape doesn’t mean you have magical powers.” Nate decides it’s time for his school, P.S. 38, to beat Jefferson Middle School at something. But the real fun and games is Nate, who takes the time to draw comics based on things that happen to him. “Making lousy stuff sound good is one of those things ALL grown-ups do,” Nate tells us. In his comic strip, he shows his teacher saying, “A pop quiz is a wonderful opportunity to improve your grade-point average!” And in a speech bubble, the teacher adds, “Plus, it’s fun to watch you panic!” (Ages 8-12. Publisher: HarperCollins)
Nina Schuyler‘s first novel, The Painting, (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill/2004), was a finalist for the Northern California Book Awards. It was also selected by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the Best Books for 2004 and a “Great Debut from 2004” by the Rocky Mountain News. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and is working on a third novel.