Monday, May 13, 2013

Continuing my quest...

... to figure out how to write a humorous middle grade novel, I've been researching till my eyes are bleary. Researching? I mean reading, of course!

And it all fits in perfectly, not only with MMGM (See Shannon's blog for the other links) but also with Deb Marshall's Middle Grade May Reading Challenge!

So besides Timmy Failure (last week's recommendation), what did I read so far? Three paperbacks I purchased at my local used bookstore.


Mudshark by Gary Paulsen (Paperback published by Scholastic 2010, for ages 8 to 12)

Synopsis: Mudshark is cool. He's fast-thinking and fast-moving, and with his photographic memory, he's the go-to guy with the answers. Lost your shoe? Can't find your homework? Ask Mudshark. At least, until the Psychic Parrot takes up residence in the school library.

The word in school is that the parrot can out-think Mudshark. And right now, the school needs someone who's good at solving problems. There's an escaped gerbil running the halls, a near-nuclear emergency in the faculty restroom, and an unexplained phenomenon involving disappearing erasers. Once Mudshark solves the mystery of the erasers, he plans to investigate the Psychic Parrot. . . . 

Why I liked it: This has to be the shortest MG book I've ever read. At 83 pages, and with fairly large print, this would have strong appeal for reluctant readers. But mostly it's downright funny, in a silly sort of way. Gary Paulsen manages to pack a lot into those 83 pages -- his characters are quirky, his dialogue is spot-on, and the mystery is intriguing (as an adult reader, though, I admit I found it a bit anticlimactic).



Sideways Stories From Wayside School by Louis Sachar (Paperback published 1985 by Avon, for ages 8 to 12)


Synopsis: There'd been a terrible mistake. Wayside School was supposed to be built with thirty classrooms all next to each other in a row. Instead, they built the classrooms one on top of the other...thirty stories tall! (The builder said he was very sorry.)

That may be why all kinds of funny things happen at Wayside School...especially on the thirtieth floor. You'll meet Mrs. Gorf, the meanest teacher of all, terrible Todd, who always gets sent home early, and John who can read only upside down--along with all the other kids in the crazy mixed-up school that came out sideways. 

What I thought: This was Louis Sachar's first published book (and Louis is the yard teacher at Wayside School). I'm sure I read this many years ago, but I really didn't remember much of it. This time around, I found it a little odd, to say the least. There were quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, but on the whole I prefer Holes. However, if you have a kid reader with an unusual sense of humor (my younger son adored this book in third grade), these strange little stories would be just right. And they're very short. So there's that.



There's A  Girl in My Hammerlock by Jerry Spinelli (Paperback published 1992 by Trumpet Club/Bantam Books, for ages 9 to 13)

Synopsis: Maisie Potter isn't quite sure why she signed up for the boys' wrestling team. She's never been all that interested in boys, so it can't have anything to do with Eric Delong, in spite of the disturbing effect his smile has on her. And she's certainly not prepared for the effect her presence on the team has on the people around her.

Her brother's totally disgusted with her, her best friend drops her, her classmates ridicule her, and opposing teams forfeit rather than wrestle her. But Maisie's not a quitter, and she discovers that she really likes wrestling -- and that while Eric might not be worth the flak she puts up with, feeling good about herself is.

Why I liked it: Maisie! She's feisty and stubborn and really comes to life here. You know I love Jerry Spinelli books, and usually the more serious ones, like Maniac Magee or Stargirl. This book has some really funny moments, and Spinelli's trademark older kid/younger kid interaction (Maisie has a kid sister named P.K. who's adorable) but at the same time tackles a serious subject: gender stereotyping.

Note: When the hardcover was published in 1991, this may have broken new ground, but today it does seem a little dated. And I find the title and this newer cover image misleading. It's written from Maisie's POV. But this book was by far my favorite of the three.



So what have I learned from my research?

  -- Many contemporary middle grade books have a humorous element even if they're not "funny" books.

  -- Laugh-out-loud books are NOT the ones I remember the most or love the most.

  -- Humor can't be forced.

What do you think? Are the funny MG books the ones you remember and love? Or the deeper, more serious books?

30 comments:

  1. I tend to read the more serious books. Maybe because I'm not funny myself. I admire you for trying to write a funny book.

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    1. I don't think of myself as funny either, Natalie. But we all have a sense of humor.

      Whether or not it's a good idea, I'm trying!

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  2. I do like funny books, but tend to read more of the serious ones. I recently read a Calvin Coconut book and thought I might like to read more of that series. It was really funny.

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    1. I tend to read more serious books too, Rosi.

      I read the first Calvin Coconut! A lot of series books tend to be on the humorous side, I think. Or lighter, anyway.

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  3. I enjoy humor when it's organic and isn't the focus of the book. I simply can't do silly for the sake of silly (it's just my personality and love of words that MEAN something, I think), but I also think there are readers who love silliness just for silliness sake.

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    1. So true, and thank goodness there are readers for every genre! Since I prefer the more serious, literary books, I didn't think I'd enjoy these funny books at all, but at the very least, they're making me smile more! :)

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  4. Those are some great suggestions. Humor is all about timing, I like what Barbara said about "organic". I was never a cartoon kid so slapstick wasn't my thing. Watching Tom and Jerry once or twice was enough. I need a story that adds meat along with dessert. I think one of my favorite humorous books are by Donna Gephart. I reviewed, How To Survive Middle School and loved it! I also enjoyed Alan Silberburg's Milo Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze.

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    1. Good point, Pam. Timing is essential in comedy. Yeah, slapstick never appealed to me as a kid. I cringed at I Love Lucy...

      And you're the second person recently to recommend Milo Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze. I really need to read that book! Thanks.

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  5. Man oh man...love all your humour reading AND must check out MUDSHARK, not familiar with that one.

    Right now I am listening to SOUP by Robert Newton Peck...yeah, can you believe it? Have never read that one.

    Another funny writer guy to check out will be Andrew Clements--I like his style, it's that natural not forced type you are talking about. Not laugh laugh out loud funny, but a more subtle humour? I think.

    A more slapstick type that may not have appeal for you is THE GIGGLER TREATMENT. What soooo impressed me with this was not only the laugh out loud chapter headings but the wit that was in the entire book, especially when it came to story structure and playing. around with "meanwhile back at the...".

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    1. Deb, you could read MUDSHARK in a half hour or less. Oh, and I loved the Soup books. Haven't heard about them in a while. My older son and I read a lot of those together.

      And I've read quite a few of Andrew Clements's books. FRINDLE is still my favorite. Good suggestion. I should re-read that.

      I remember selling THE GIGGLER TREATMENT when I first started at the bookstore, but I never read it.

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  6. Paulsen does very well with humor, but both Sachar and Spinelli have really gone out of fashion. Sonnenblick is slightly older but SOOOO good. Timmy Failure falls on the elementary side of the "Pilkey Line". Some stuff goes over well in elementary school but is too goofy for middle school students unless it's during the forst three months of sixth grade. Really! It's that dramatic. Glad to see yu are doing your research!

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    1. Sad to hear that Spinelli's gone out of fashion, but I'm not surprised about the Sachar books doing so!

      I've read every book Jordan Sonnenblick has written! LOVE his books, love his teen boy voice. So perfect.

      About Timmy Failure and others (love your yardstick: the "Pilkey Line"), I can see they'd appeal to the younger end of the MG spectrum. This is why Middle Grade is not the same as Middle School! Fourth graders will laugh themselves silly over something a sixth-grader would sniff at.

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  7. Blogger ate my first comment or it seems that way, so hopefully I don't double-post :)

    Sideways Stories is on my TBR-list because one of my friends told me he remembers loving it as a kid (20+ years ago). I think he actually used the word "odd" or "weird" when describing it!

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    1. Blogger's been doing that to me too, lately!

      Yeah, odd or weird sounds perfect for that book. There's really no other way to describe it.

      Thanks for stopping by my blog.

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  8. I haven't read any of these- but I have read books by all of the authors and I own all of the ones you reviewed. I found all of your reviews helpful and will probably read the Spinelli book first. :)

    I like there to be humor in MG books, but I don't think the funny ones are the ones I remember and like the most. I tend to like books where I really connect with the characters, so the humor is a nice addition. Books that can weave the two together with ease are home runs (Granny Torelli Makes Soup by Sharon Creech comes to mind).

    ~Jess

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    1. That's a great example, Jess. Sharon Creech can be very serious, but she nearly always includes lovely little touches of humor. Thanks!

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  9. I love serious books that have elements of humor to add contrast and heighten the emotion.

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    1. Well said, Stina. I do believe those are the best books!

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  10. Laugh out loud humor is very hard to accomplish. Wry smiles are easier.

    My oldest loved Wayside School, and so I treasure it in my heart (even if it's gone out of fashion.) I really enjoyed Gary Paulsen's Liar, Liar.

    Good luck with your research, and the writing that will ensue!

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    1. Ah, well, I'm even having trouble with wry smiles...

      I haven't read Liar, Liar yet. Thanks for the suggestion!

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  11. Fun quest- what's the funniest MG book you've found so far?

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    1. Great question, Gina! A couple of years ago I would have said Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but on re-reading it recently, it didn't feel so funny. Maybe because it was already familiar. On the other hand, I re-read 11 Birthdays by Wendy Mass and enjoyed it just as much as the first time around!

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  12. I agree with you. Humor can't be forced. When I read books that are supposedly funny but I don't find them funny, they make for a very awkward reading experience. I prefer characters who are funny without trying or meaning to and stories that are funny because of circumstances.

    You've definitely read some interesting books. All of them are new to me. :)

    ~Akoss

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    1. Well said, Akoss. When the stories are funny because of the circumstances, and not because it's been forced, those are the books I seem to enjoy the most.

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  13. I believe I remember the more serious books.

    I'd like to read these. What a fantastic research experience.

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    1. Serious books do tend to stay with me too, Medeia.

      Thanks. This research project of mine has been interesting, to say the least.

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    1. I'll bet you would, Erik! And since you're the only commenter who's actually a bona fide middle grader, I'd love it if you let me know what you think of them.

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  15. I think books that "don't force the funny" are the best. I attended a breakout with Chris Rylander (The Fourth Stall - definitely check out for humor!) and that was one thing he focused on. Funny has to be in normal every day life for it to work with a large audience. He also said that simple running gags can be a great way to inject humor into a story.

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    1. Thanks, Jennifer! That must have been a great workshop. I'd love to meet Chris Rylander. Yes, I've read The Fourth Stall and it's very funny.

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YAY for comments! I read and appreciate each one and I always try to answer. All opinions welcome. Let's have a conversation.