Two of the judges for this year's Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (the Lollies), author Michael Rosen and journalist Nicolette Jones, talk about the importance of funny books and reading for pleasure.
What was the judging process like?
I enjoy chairing the judging. We weren’t trying to get a range of books on the shortlist. It’s interesting to look when you’ve made your choice and say ‘Have we got a range?’. You might regret that you haven’t and think ‘does it matter?’. Technically it shouldn’t for this because we’re just looking for a book that’s funny. We observe what kind of range we’ve got but the key thing is ‘is the book funny?’.
How do you think this year’s shortlist reflects children’s books at the moment?
I think with funny books some authors want to try to push at the taboos as hard as they can. There are lots of books about wee and poo and pants, but people are exploring other areas. It’s quite nice when people realise that for humour you’ve got a whole range of things available to you – secret agents, aliens from outer space, dinosaurs – it doesn’t just have to be school and home. And kids are up for parody and humour that slightly mocks fantasy and science fiction, so it’s quite nice that some of that’s coming through. Then there’s another style of humour that works on exaggeration and reversal, that’s quite nice for very young children to see.
Why do you think that we need funny books? And do you think that we need them more in these times?
If you think of artificial intelligence, the one thing that distinguishes it from humans is that it won’t be able to laugh. It is something that defines us as human beings, it is part of how we exist. It seems to essentially be a relief and a release. As creatures we are tense about things and humour is a way of releasing us for a moment from our anxieties and our worries.
I don’t see books in reaction to these times coming through quite yet. Mostly children’s books deal with politics in a serious way, whereas the comic ones tend to avoid it. Maybe that will change, maybe there’ll be one about a rather strange president…
The Lollies were set up when the Roald Dahl Prize ended. Why did you think it was important that there was a prize for funny books?
I think it’s absolutely crucial for several reasons. The first reason is that children love funny books and so shouldn’t we as adults acknowledge something that children love about books? There are people who put in a lot of effort and children who find these books funny. Shouldn’t we try to find the best? My other thought was that children sometimes ask parents for a funny book and if you have a shortlist, I hope that parents and librarians will use that as a platform to recommend funny books. Also, if you select a shortlist of funny books and then children pick from those, it’s an indicator to publishers and writers of what’s working. You’re upping your level of critical awareness of comedy books. I hope that it improves the general quality.
What is the judging process when reading the entries?
When I’m reading these, it’s no so much whether it makes me laugh, it’s the bit after that, I look at the craft. If something’s good I think “wow, I wish I’d thought of that joke” or “I wonder if I can adapt that and steal it”. That’s sort of the criteria I work to, which at first glance sounds facetious but in actual fact, if you’re a writer that’s what we do when we read. You’re looking at how things are done, you’re reading the ‘how’ more than the ‘what’.
Should the government and publishing industry do more to promote reading for pleasure among children?
Since I was the Children’s Laureate, I’ve been banging the drum for reading for pleasure. I’ve banged it in front of education and schools and culture ministers and it’s kind of obscene because they pay lip service but all their attention is on initial literacy. So they pulled systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) out of the bag and they say “this is what teaches children to read”. It’s lies, basically.
You can boast and talk about children saying single words out loud, but when it comes to reading for understanding, ultimately the only way you can achieve it is to get children reading for pleasure. Language is more than saying words that are phonically regular. When we read, we’re reading sentences, passages, chapters, whole sequences with meaning. You read for meaning.
You stand in front of these ministers, as I have done, and you say this to them and you say “why not have a programme of reading for pleasure? Every piece of research done over the world in the last 30 years says that if you do reading for pleasure with children, it ups their school attainment, it enables them to read better. If you can programme it into the school curriculum, everything improves.” Will ministers do this? No. If there is a programme that costs money that can get children jumping through hoops, they think ‘oh yes, that sounds efficient, let’s do that’. It’s silver bullet stuff.
Reading for pleasure is massively, massively important. I don’t think we’ve even really got to first base on this and it’s a tragedy the amount of money that’s been sunk into SSP. Why is Nick Gibb able to come up with the money for this when he isn’t prepared to come up with the money for schools to buy books? There’s a kind of reflex that comes from the government in relation to children that unless you’re controlling them and containing them, then somehow or other it isn’t education.
Jones and Rosen with fellow judge, CBBC presenter Katie Thistleton
How was it choosing the shortlist?
It was jolly good fun. It was very interesting because some books were really funny and we did genuinely laugh out loud and some books that were submitted were actually not very funny. Funny is one of those categories that some people think is just a silly book. There were some books we liked very much but they weren’t actually funny so what we thought was ‘it’s the Laugh Out Loud Awards, the big test is did we laugh out loud?’ and if we did, then they were in with a chance.
Were there lots of submissions?
There were 42 books on the longlist over the three categories – which were picture books, books for children aged six to eight and books for children aged nine to 13.
Did you notice any trends or themes in the submissions?
Yes – the world is absolutely full of suspect teachers, kids with superpowers and sometimes anti-heroes with non-super powers, talking animals and, of course, in funny books you always have a lot of poo jokes, wee jokes and fart jokes. One thing we did discover is that they are not necessarily funny in themselves – a good fart joke is distinct from a bad fart joke. This year, if you’d taken out the ‘saving the world’, ‘creepy teacher’ and ‘talking animal’ categories, there would not be very many books left.
Why do you think that funny books are important?
I think they’re absolutely crucial because if you’re going to read for pleasure, laughter is the great gateway drug. I also think that you don’t make readers without them enjoying reading, so funny books are absolutely the best way to get kids enthused about it and then turn them into readers for life.
I think it also continues to be an absolutely underrated skill to write them. You need to be a very good craftsman with language and to pace jokes well. People tend to be dismissive of funny books because they think they’re shallow or trivial or silly but if you think of stand-up comedians at the moment and what they have to say about politics, you realise that you can be funny and you can be very serious. At the moment, comedians are often doing a better job than serious news journalists and politicians at talking about what’s actually going on in politics at the moment and I think the same thing’s true with children’s books. If you can be funny about serious stuff, then you’re doing a grand job. Often underneath the funny books, there are a lot of other things going on. So there are quite a lot of wise books on the Lollies shortlist.
Do you think the political climate has had any effect on children’s books?
These shortlisted books were mostly published about a year ago, but I am seeing that in the books coming through now. I’ve seen a picture book that’s inspired by Donald Trump. I do think there are a lot more books about tolerance and acceptance and diversity and all those things which book makers are producing in reaction to the feeling we have that it’s a more hate-filled world. Of course, ‘trump’ continues to be a word that appears a lot in the funny books and that’s quite satisfying.
I don’t think it has quite filtered through to this shortlist yet, but it will. I’m already seeing it in what’s coming out this year and so it should because I think that children’s books are the future. Readers make the world a better place, books help kids to make sense of their lives and the world and it makes for kinder people, so if these funny books are a way in to enthusiasm for books, there’s hope for us. Whatever the books are about, they give me hope for the future.
You can see the shortlists for the 2017 Lollies here.