Absurdity in Children’s Books

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-001ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-002When I was eighteen I had a moped that was frustratingly slow. Crouched low in a kind of Lance Armstrong position, heading downhill with a tailwind I could just about make 28 mph. Lance Armstrong would have passed me quite easily on a pedal bike, even without his magic drug cocktail. 

The bike somehow had to go faster, so one quite Sunday, I took my father’s wrenches, removed the engine from the bike, and took it apart. My task to find whichever component it was that wasn’t functioning properly and replace it before my parents came home.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-003.jpgI broke the engine down into about three or four dozen pieces, with the help of my friend Ian I put them back together again, and discovered that I still had a number of pieces of the engine that were left over. I had more spare nuts and bolts than I’d begun with. Surely this was good. If the engine didn’t need those bits then the bike would be faster.

Sadly my newly reassembled machine would only now do eighteen miles an hour.

So with this in mind I have some trepidation with taking humor apart and putting it back together that it won’t be quite so funny as it was before. Hopefully not the case.

2: Humor is major component of picture books. 

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-004.jpgFor the last couple of years I’ve been teaching a class in Writing Children’s Stories at a University in Southern New Jersey. It’s a rural community. My students are mostly young women in their twenties. For many of them they’re the first generation to go to college, many of them are training to be some kind of teachers, and a lot them are really great writers.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-005.jpgI split the 14 week class into 3 sections. Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult. For me as a teacher the frustrating element is that the best writing takes place when the students are writing Middle Grade and Young adult. Picture books take up the first month of the class, and the frustrating thing is that in every class I have at least half a dozen really good writers, but I don’t know who they are until almost the mid-terms are due.

There are plenty of students who can turn out beautifully-written, character-filled, suspenseful, and original Middle Grade stories, but when it comes to picture books it’s kind of a race to the bottom. The best writers turn out stories that are no really better than the worst writers. Yes, it’s a great leveller, but not at all in a good way.

As far as I’m aware we do all the things that picture book classes are supposed to do.

We discuss the age group the books are targeted at (the under 7’s).

We discuss the complexity of the words used, bearing in mind that picture books are actually read by adults in contrast to the next level of books, easy readers, which are read by the children themselves.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-006.jpgWe discuss the unique nature of picture book texts. Picture books are read aloud (by the parent while the child looks at the pictures).

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-007.jpgPicture books are read repeatedly. Unlike older readers children love being read the same book over and over. If the parents are lucky the child’s favorite book is a great classic such as WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE which has the ability to reveal something new to both the parent reader, and the child viewer with almost every re-reading. If the parents are less lucky the book might be a merchandising tie-in for one of Disney’s less successful animated movies.

We discuss how page turns are like chapter breaks. How the fact that the books are read aloud tends to lead to texts that are poetic, or at least rhythmic, and how because they’re illustrated the poetic nature of the texts tends towards figures of speech such as alliteration, onomatopoeia, and similes, rather than metaphors that are often based on visual cues, and might fight with the illustrations.

I suppose the sub-text of this talk is how is it that writers who can craft such wonderful prose for middle grade and young adult stories turn out such disappointing picture book texts, and how can that be fixed?

I needed a different way of teaching picture books.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-010.jpgA possible solution occurred to me a couple of months ago when I read (in SLATE by Nicholas Day) a review of a newly re-released (by McSweeney’s) picture book from the seventies. STORIES 1234 by the Absurdist Playwright Eugene Inoesco (beautifully illustrated in a style reminiscent of YELLOW SUBMARINE by Etienne Delessert).

Ionesco, so the story goes, got the idea for his first absurdist play, THE BALD SOPRANO, when he was learning English. He was using a method where he was required to copy whole sentences and then memorize them. After a while he started to feel that he was not so much learning English as learning about life from the fictional characters of the English phrases, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Smith would inform her husband that the ceiling was up and floor was down. She would tell him that they had several children, that they lived in the vicinity of London, that their name was Smith, that Mr. Smith was a clerk, and that they had a servant, Mary, who was English like themselves. 

It’s easy to see these ideas at work in Ionesco’s book.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-011.jpgI look out the chair while eating my pillow. I open the wall, I walk with my ears. I have ten eyes to walk with and two fingers to look with. I put my head on the floor to sit down, I put my bottom on the ceiling. After eating the music box, I spread jam on the rug for a great dessert. Take the window, Papa, and draw me some pictures.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-013.jpgIn another story all of the characters are named Jacqueline, and the recurring image of the rhino, reflecting back on his play, The Killers, in which all the characters turn into rhinos.

When I read that it struck me that what was missing from my students’ picture book texts was humor.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-014.jpgIt’s one thing to say to students Make more funny, like the in movie LOST IN TRANSLATION, but how do you get them to be funnier, and more specifically funnier for picture book age children.ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-016.jpg

3: The various types of humor, and which are effective in picture books (absurdity).

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So my strategy was to try and analyze humor without ruining it. My first task was to familiarize myself with the way you spell humor over here. U is the funniest vowel and you’ve taken one of them out.

I started out with: Funny, funny ha-ha, funny peculiar, and funny-not-funny.

But once I started looking it became overwhelming, but I managed to break humor down into the following genres:

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-032.jpgObservational, Satirical, bathroom, whimsical, slapstick, puns, ironic, graveyard, surreal, and finally absurd.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-034.jpgSome of these types work for picture book age children whereas others don’t.

One way of testing their effectiveness is to consider the commonly-held belief that humor relies on surprise…or to be precise, humor relies on the unexpected.

Or to be more even more precise it relies on the expected not occurring, because the joke maker builds the expectation of one event happening, and then just at the right moment switches it to another, perhaps even opposite event occurring. Aristotle refers to this as dramatic reversal in his POETICS.

Usually this is done with the important element of timing, but that is another matter for later.

The important thing is that in order for humor to work the audience has to understand the expectation.

Let’s see how this works, with Bathroom Humor.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-037.jpgChildren delight in making jokes about bodily functions once they become toilet trained.

But while they’re still in diapers they don’t really get it.

A 2 year old fills his diaper, and says “I just pooped. FYI. When you get minute.” It’s just something that happens a certain amount of time after a meal. No big deal.

But to a five year old it’s hilarious.

I don’t know what that says about 40 year olds who find bathroom humor hilarious.

Bathroom humor is almost a right of passage. Almost like an IN joke.

This is fine. We can rely on expectations of our audience, and we’re really considering the over twos here, so bathroom humor is perfect for that age group, but how many books about bodily function do we really want our pre-schoolers to have in their libraries?

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-040.jpgLet’s look at satire, using the same set of rules.

Much as I love Colbert this isn’t going to work for picture book aged children.

Satire relies on a deviation from the expectations for some sociological system.

Our age group are smart and sophisticated, but sociological systems are beyond their understanding.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-043.jpgObservational requires a foreknowledge of acceptable social habits. Again it’s like satire, so excepting the case where observational humor intersects with bathroom humor, it’s not going to work.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-046.jpgWhimsical humor is often quite gentle humor. Picture book age children tend to either be very happy or very sad. Likewise they either find jokes hilarious or not funny at all.

 

 

 

 

 

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-051.jpgChildren love puns, but once again they aren’t going to work for our age group.

Children delight in puns once they become competent readers and discover that many words have a similar pronunciation, yet differ in meaning. Again a right of passage.

Slapstick relies on an acceptable victim. Someone slipping on a banana-skin might be funny. As adults we can howl with mirth at Hitler slipping on a banana skin, but who are acceptable victims for pre-schoolers. Mean teachers perhaps? I’ve had students write slapstick stories and they’re kind of sad. 

That brings us to surreal and absurd humor.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-052.jpgThere’s plenty of surreal humor in picture books but I tend to think that it’s less successful than absurd humor.

So, what is the difference between absurd and surreal.

Surreal is word that gets tossed around a lot, but it’s not always used correctly.

When a tragedy occurs you hear news reporters saying the situation is surreal, but often what’s odd in those situations is that things become more real. They actually lift the veil of unreality that we usually walk around with.

Chris Van Allsberg would be the go to surrealist picture book guy.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-053.jpgPeggy Rathman might be a good example of the absurd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-054.jpgIn Harris Burdick we’re transported into a universe that makes no sense whatsoever. We enjoy it because we like the sensation of having the normal rules of existence turned upside down. It’s like a fairground ride that removes gravity. The enjoyment probably comes from the knowledge that when the experience over we will return to normality. We’re glad that what happens in surreal fiction really doesn’t happen in normality.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-055.jpgAbsurd is different. The situations are very close to normality, and the enjoyment in part come from recognition and familiarity.

Rathman’s officer Buckle is hilarious because his situation is all-too-familiar to us. He’s a hapless klutz thrust into a position in life for which he has zero aptitude, but he’s stranded in that situation because he has no aptitude for anything else either, plus somebody has to do that job.

Officer Buckle is a victim. The omnipotent deity in in office Buckle’s universe has a mischevious sense of humor, and maybe a sadistic streak.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-056.jpgThe absurd universe obeys Murphy’s Law. If something can go wrong, then it will go wrong…along with all the other things that couldn’t possibly go wrong but still do.

The old surrealist lightbulb joke:

Q: How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?

A: Wilderbeest..

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-057.jpgWe have Jon Klassen’s absurd fish, and Shawn Tan’s surrealist fish.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-059.jpgFunny…not funny.

 

 

 

 

 

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-060.jpgOnce again Chris Van Allsburg’s surrealist book, and the absurdness of a dog that can speak after it eats alphabet spaghetti.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-061.jpgIs there a difference between ABSURD and ABSURDIST?

Once again I’ve been hearing news reporters referring to situations as being absurdist, when I think they mean absurd. It’s possible the words might merge in usage in the future, but they do not strictly mean the same thing.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-062.jpgAn absurd situation is where the expected course of events run off the rails, usually with humorous results.

In debating, there’s reductio ad absurdum…reducing your opponent’s argument to an absurd level. A great way to undermine your opponent and get a laugh. What’s something totally non-controversial…Many scientists believe that dinosaurs were actually the ancestors of birds…did they sing? How could brontosaurus balance on a bird feeder? Maybe that’s why they became extinct.

Absurdism was developed from existentialism by Albert Camus, and is outlines in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Basically it revolves around the futility of our search for meaning in a meaningless universe. Sisyphus was the greek hero who every day was compelled to roll a rock up a steep slope. Each night the rock would roll down the slope, and the next day Sisyphus would have to roll the rock back up the hill again.

Camus saw this as a metaphor for the human condition in the industrial age, and he was fascinated by Sisyphus’s thoughts as he walked down the hill at the end of the day. At that moment he must have seen his existence in perspective, and yet would dutifully roll the rock back up the hill again the next day. Camus ends with the line, One must imagine Sisyphus happy. He found contentment in the activity, but he found no hope. His punishment was perpetual, and that I think is where absurd and absurdism part company.

An absurdist story can by it’s nature offer no hope, but an absurd story can. Camus would not allow Kafka to be classed as an absurdist as he thought Kafka’s endings were too hopeful.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-065.jpgAnd that is where Jon Klassen comes in. I think THIS IS NOT MY HAT is absurdist. The little fish is a perfect modern Sisyphus. Picture books are intended for repeat reading, so each time we read the little fish sets off on its hopeless endeavor, and at the end of each reading it gets eaten. 

One must imagine the little fish happy.

In Shawn Tan’s surrealist illustration we have no idea what is passing through anybody’s mind.

Tall tales rely on the absurd.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-067.jpgIn ROTTEN ISLAND monsters battle for control of the land only to be defeated by flowers. Hopelessness leads to hope. An absurdist story becomes absurd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think the most important requirement for an absurd story is a victim, but unlike slapstick the victim in an absurd story is the main character. This is important. Even in a picture book we have the space to establish a sympathetic main character. Unlike slapstick were not laughing at the character, but with him or her.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-073.jpgLet’s look closer at Officer Buckle. Even though we laugh at him we love him, and see ourselves in him. Children who are often told they aren’t good at things love to see adults who aren’t good at things they’re supposed to be good at.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-074.jpgansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-075.jpgansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-076.jpgOfficer Buckle may be the victim of a cruel universe, but he gets help and has hope at the end.

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-079.jpgMilo from Milo’s hatrick is another victim, but once agin his story ends with hope.

 

 

 

 

 

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ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-086.jpgIn Felicity and Cordelia we have the double victim. These two bunnies must have been forced together by some malevolent power in this dual viewpoint story. Again absurd situations require absurd solutions.

 

 

 

 

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-094.jpgHere’s another one, MISTER BUMBLE.

This leads me to the question (and I don’t have answer yet) Are the heroes of absurd picture books always adults? Officer Buckle, Milo, Felicity and cordelia, Mister Bumble? Are all childish adults.

 

 

 

 

ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-098.jpgI came up with one non-adult absurd hero. The runaway pickle of STOP THAT PICKLE.

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ansilomar-pictures-lecture-page-112.jpgLike Milo and Buckle the pickle is the victim-hero, but unlike them he doesn’t have a rich inner-life, and that is what makes him child-like. It’s not ill-considered strategies that save him, but merely an instinctive reaction.

What’s more we can see the malevolent controllers of his fate, and that makes him more of a child.

We have all the ingredients of an absurd story.

We have the hero-victim. We have the malevolent source of power. We have society apparently united against our hero for absurd reasons, and of course we have a sequence of events that bends logic to the extreme. Finally, unlike an absurdist story we have a savior at the end.

So, to sum up, this is what we need for an absurd picture book:

We need a victim-hero.

We need to bring the hero to a crisis in which––like Sisyphus walking down the hill–– he sees the absurdity of his situation.

Absurd food: pickle.

Absurd color: Green

Absurd number: 17 all prime numbers are funny, but seventeen is absurd.

Absurd animal: pig, dog, donkey, chicken.

Absurd profession: Children’s book author.