Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Why we seriously need a new funny prize • Jonathan Emmett

The demise of the Roald Dahl Prize is nothing to laugh about

Like many involved with children’s literature and children’s literacy, I was dismayed to learn that the Roald Dahl Funny Prize was coming to an end.

The prize was launched in 2008 by the Roald Dahl estate, Booktrust and author Michael Rosen, as part of Rosen’s work as children’s laureate. The Dahl estate have said that they were withdrawing their support for the prize because it did not fit in with the estate’s plans for next year’s Roald Dahl centenary.

I was dismayed for a couple of reasons. The first reason is extremely selfish. I was an avid Roald Dahl fan as a child, Dahl has been a big influence on my writing and the books that I’m proudest of are the ones that - like most of Dahl’s – make children laugh. Although I don’t write books to win awards, if I could choose one adult-judged award that I’d liked to have won it would be the Dahl Funny Prize. When I met the 2011 Funny Prize winning author Peter Bently at an awards lunch a few years ago I contemplated holding my butter knife to his throat and forcing him to take me to his house so that I could steal his trophy confessed how much I coveted the prize. Now I’ve had to give up any hope of that dream coming true. *sobs uncontrollably into keyboard*

The second reason is less selfish. Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading report published last month demonstrated that, “above all, children want books that make them laugh.” When children were asked what they looked for when choosing a book to read for fun, humour was the most commonly cited factor by a considerable margin.

"Above all, children want books that make them laugh"
(Graph from the UK Kids and Family Reading report 2015)

Research shows that children that read for pleasure do better in maths, vocabulary and spelling than those who rarely read and they gain advantages that last their whole lives. The Kids and Family Reading report shows that if we want kids to read for pleasure, then we need to recognise and highlight the huge value of funny books. The Roald Dahl Funny Prize was the only high-profile book award that did this.

Funny books play a vital role in establishing reading habits at an early age and are particularly good at engaging reluctant readers. My son and daughter both adored Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum series and I’m always recommending them to parents who are struggling to engage their children with books. I don’t think many people appreciate how difficult it is to write something as absurdly funny as Mr Gum unless they’ve actually attempted it. As John Cleese once said, “it’s much easier to be clever than it is to be funny”.

Fortunately, I’m not the only person to feel this way. Once news of the Dahl prize’s demise got around, many people started calling for a replacement funny prize. Author Andy Seed suggested on Facebook that any new award should include separate categories for picture books, fiction, non-fiction and poetry. I love the idea of a funny book awards with multiple categories like the Oscars. You could have great fun with the awards ceremony by poking fun at some of the conventions of more serious awards. Instead of sitting there with a fixed grin, clapping politely when the winner is announced, runners-up could be encouraged to shriek “NOOOOOO!”, tear at their hair, wail inconsolably or shout insults at the winner. I’m sure that the kids attending would find it far more entertaining than a regular awards ceremony where the nominees are expected to behave themselves and I suspect that the authors and illustrators might enjoy it more too.

It would be hilarious to have an award ceremony where the runners-up were encouraged to voice their disappointment.

The recently created This Book is Funny website does a great job of waving the banner for funny books. When the Roald Dahl news broke last week, the team behind the site announced that they were already gearing up to step into the breach which is heartening news.

If there is a new funny books award, I hope that it will have a children’s vote to pick the winners rather than a panel of adult judges. Humour is largely subjective and there are no better judges of what children find funny than children themselves – as this second graph from the Kids and Family Reading report illustrates.

The best judges of what kids find appealing are kids themselves.
(Graph from the UK Kids and Family Reading report 2015)

We seriously need a funny prize, so – whoever organises it and whatever it's called – I have all my appendages crossed that we'll have a new one soon!




UPDATE: Great news! The week after this post went online, Scholastic UK announced a new funny book prize – The Laugh Out Loud Book Awards (AKA The Lollies)! 


The prize will be awarded in three categories:
  • Best Laugh Out Loud Picture Book
  • Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 6-8s
  • Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 9-13s
A panel headed by Michael Rosen will select four books to make up the shortlist in each category but the winners will be decided entirely by children’s votes. You can find out more on this page of the Scholastic website.



Jonathan Emmett's latest picture book is Fast and Furry Racers: The Silver Serpent Cup illustrated by Ed Eaves and published by Oxford University Press.

Find out more about Jonathan and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blogYou can also follow Jonathan on Facebook and Twitter @scribblestreet.

See all of Jonathan's posts for Picture Book Den.

24 comments:

  1. What a shame. About the prize but also about you now having to write with crossed appendages. . . I wonder how a funny prize didn't 'fit in' with RD's estate's plans. What was he if not a very funny writer? I hope somebody steps in with an alternative, especially with the huge profile comedy has in this country at least. We like a laugh, and we seem pretty good at making others laugh.
    And yup, Mr Gum is great. I read them for myself as my kids were too old by the time they came out, by many years ;-) Dav Pilkey's 'Captain Underpants' series delighted my son when he was younger. Just throwing that in for good measure. . .

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    1. I think a lot of people found the justification given by the Dahl estate puzzling. And yes - Dav Pilkey's 'Captain Underpants' books also do a great job of getting kids reading.

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  2. Hear, hear! And it's not just reluctant readers either...it's the funny children' books (Spud Murphy, Killer Cat, Jennings, Church Mice, Magic Roundabout, Fudge, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Georgia Nicolson, Adrian Mole, most recently Catherine Wilkins's, I could go on and ON) that I reach for when skies are grey.

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  3. I love the idea of that awards ceremony! It's a huge shame about the Roald Dahl Funny Prize. Presumably they've got something very big in mind for next year but it's something that's built up such momentum and children and children's stories will lose out.

    As for funny, there are books that my children find hilarious, like The Clumsies, and The Wild Moose Chase, where I'd not have predicted their reaction when first seeing them. They've really encouraged my son to read more but he wants things as funny as those (as he sees them) and I've read them countless times to the children (and the children have read them countless times, on their own). Long live funny, and sometimes downright strange, books!

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  4. Thanks Jonathan. The graphs are fascinating, and absolutely highlight the need for an award. Having an award with different categories, children's votes and an imaginative ceremony is a great idea. I'm being cynical here but perhaps the marketing guys for the Dahl franchise decided they didn't want to promote any other writers' products - only their own product (that's books to you and me). Mr Gum is pure genius. Never read a funnier book.

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    1. The same slightly-cynical thought about the Dahl estate did cross my mind, but in fairness, they deserve considerable credit for funding a funny award for the last few years when no one else was doing it.

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  5. Cracking post, Jonathan. It's a sad world where we can't celebrate the joy of funny books for children through some kind of award with its associated publicity and buzz. You're so right about the power of humorous books in terms of moving children towards becoming readers.

    The key word in reading for pleasure is pleasure. For children, what is more pleasurable than having a good giggle and what better way to supply that than through a funny book?

    I think your point about allowing children to judge book prizes is a very good one too. It's interesting that when children are allowed to choose they tend to go for funny books - hence the two winners of the 2015 Blue Peter Book Award (chosen by 200+ children from 10 schools) were the two humorous titles on the shortlist of fact and fiction. So, come one Booktrust and others, let's start looking for a shiny new prize or two.

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    1. That's a good point about the Blue Peter Award winners. I'm not entirely opposed to adult-judged awards, it's just that, if there's only one award that recognises funny books for children, I think it should be chosen by children.

      Building on your multiple category suggestion, perhaps there could be a category of "Best Funny Children's Book as Judged by Adults” in addition to the ones voted for by kids. Then you could still have a panel of famous authors/comedians/celebrities involved, with all the publicity that brings with it. And they might present the awards as well.

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  6. I agree! Thanks for a great post, and for making me laugh out loud by your suggestion of appropriate losers' behaviour at the awards ceremony :-)

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  7. Hold on your hats....something might be cooking....(my lips are sealed)...but stay hopeful, comrades.

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    1. Feeling more hopeful already... Thank you, Michael, for not telling us about something that might be cooking...

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    2. Ooh! Intriguing. I hope that whatever it is you’re cooking up works out, Michael. And a big belated THANK YOU for getting the old Funny Award going in 2008!

      I'll keep all my appendages crossed in the meantime – just to be sure.

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    3. And do let me know if I can help in any way!

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  8. Great post even if a little depressing. I would just love to be a fly on the wall for a ceremony where those who did not gain first place could let the world know how they feel.

    I also agree whole heartedly that any award should be judged by our audience.

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  9. Have you listened to the audio Mr Gum? Read by the author - it is genius!

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  10. YES to letting children have the final vote. And, here's a thought, how about a prize for funny books for adult too?

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  11. Thanks -- this one got me thinking...

    https://annaforrester.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/funny-and/

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    1. Thoughtful post, Anna. However I'm NOT arguing that ALL children's book's should be funny, just that the ones that are funny deserve more recognition in terms of awards, especially when funny is the one factor that 'children as a group' find the most appealing. All kids are different and we need a whole range of books to suit every child's taste, but we also need to broaden our definition of what constitutes good children's literature.

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    2. You're right -- they should be recognized. And the children's choice idea is great. Have you ever read anything good about the mechanics of different *sorts* of humour in children's books?
      Also: that observation that the YA market has a real lack of it right now was interesting -- I'm curious whether that's a shared perception (I don't know that market very well).

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    3. Hi Anna. I think we're essentially in agreement then.

      I don't remember reading anything about the mechanics of humour, although I'm sure someone must have written about it somewhere.

      My own knowledge of the YA market does not extend much beyond what my own kids choose to read. My son did enjoy the Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy books at that age (but they would not be regarded as YA), but my 14-year-old daughter doesn't read many funny books – my wife characterises our daughter's favoured reading material as "teenagers in trauma".

      I think funny books are generally more popular with younger readers but, as I said in the post, that's when reading habits need to be established.

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