Thursday, 26 March 2015

Look who’s laughing now - Crossover humour in picture books • Elys Dolan

A big THANK YOU to this month's guest blogger, Elys Dolan, author-illustrator of the very funny Weasels and Nuts in Space. Elys explores how picture book humour can appeal to both young and old in this post.

I’m a big fan of funny picture books. They’ve brought me moments of hilarity featuring everything from speedo wearing wombats to ugly ducklings that grow up to be even worse looking ducks. I’m so much of a fan I even try to make the odd one myself along with doing a PhD about them. I find such books funny even though I’m apparently a fully paid up grown up with a mortgage, a tax return and a grey hair I found the other day but don’t want to talk about.

So prepare yourself because I’m about to get very nerdy about the kind of picture books that are funny for both children and adults. I’ll be using the term crossover humour to describe it. I’ll wax lyrical about why they are the kind of books I want to make and the implications that come with that.

But before I begin here’s a quick disclaimer:

There are few things more subjective than what is or is not funny. Therefore I can’t guarantee that you won’t think the things I’m purporting to be amusing are quite the opposite. If this happens please accept my apologies and lets hope we never have to sit next to each other on a long plane journey.

There’s many types of humour used in children’s books but I’ve chosen three to use as examples, toilet humour, parody and physical humour, because they illustrate the use of different kinds of humour within the same book to achieve a crossover appeal. These examples are going to come from my own work. The first reason for this is that I’m deeply self-centred. The second is if I were to cover the subject in its entirety, in reference to various picture book makers, you’d be reading this for days and probably run out of food and other essential supplies. Thirdly I can put my own images on the internet without asking for permission and not get into trouble.

Toilet humour

I’ll start with the classiest type of humour. From my experience of doing book events this goes down brilliantly with kids. This vignette from my first book, Weasels, almost always gets a laugh because sometimes all you have to do is show them a toilet:

Having said that I find the grown ups in the audience aren’t above it either. You tend to have to be a bit subtler and let their own dirty imaginations do the work. I’ll often get the odd parent laughing at this bit from Weasels when the lights suddenly go out:

Toilet humour is frequently used in picture books, sometimes lazily and sometimes to great effect. Well know examples include Poo Bum by Stephanie Blake, The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch.


I seem to do this a lot and won’t realise it until half way through development. I’ll think ‘I’m going to do a book set in space’ and some how I end up referencing, and poking fun at, Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001 A Space Odyssey and all the other stuff I’m a fangirl for. This is glaringly obvious in my second book Nuts in Space. Does this place remind you of anything?: 

And perhaps this Moose is a little like William Shatner in his own way:  

And there’s more than a few Bond film references in Weasels including this chap who’s a bit like a certain evil genius/super villain:  

It’s a fairly adult form of humour because it often requires prior knowledge of external references but I get a great reaction from the reader. Parody like this doesn’t seem very common but there are some excellent examples of parody when it come to reworking fairy tales. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith one of my favourite and there’s Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs by Mo Willems.

Physical humour: Slapstick & Humorous Physicality

Under slapstick I’m including all Laurel and Hardy style falling over and comedic accidents. For example:


Ducks getting sucked into vacuum cleaners

And the classic slipping on a banana skin.

By humorous physicality I mean characters that are funny just from the way they look. I often do this by exaggerating certain features and essentially making them look ridiculous. For example here’s a Baywatch hippo:

I’ve exaggerated the size of said hippo, and trust me it’s no easy thing to make a hippo even chunkier, for comedic value. Putting her in a swimming costume and making her run seems to add to the entertainment too. There’s some great examples of exaggerated characteristics in Melvin Peake’s Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor and in Marc Boutavant’s animal characters from Around the World with Mouk.

I find that physical humour appeal much more to children than adults. I’m not entirely sure why, perhaps it’s slightly too direct for adults, and there are of course exceptions but in my own experience it’s the child that react the most to this.

So of the three forms of humour I’ve described parody appeals most to adults, toilet crosses between ages and slapstick appeals mostly to children.

Why on earth would I use crossover humour? 

I started using crossover humour, and any humour at all for that matter, unconsciously. I didn’t even realise I was doing it until people started telling me. Now the question that looms large for me is why would an author or illustrator include crossover humour in a book for children? I can’t speak for any other practitioners (although I’m planning to glean a range of opinions as part of my research) but I can offer my own philosophy.

I think the initial motivation was my own entertainment. This job is difficult, time consuming, and unlikey to make me rich so I’ve got to be enjoying myself. I do this by putting my own sense of humour into my work and doing things that make me giggle to myself like a crazy lady.

A less self-involved reason is how funny I find the book is a good form of quality control. I sometimes encounter the perception that children have lower standards of humour. I don’t think this is the case. Sometimes different things appeal to children but the standard is always very high and if they’re not enjoying it they will let you know. So, if it’s not good enough to keep me entertained how can I expect my readers to enjoy it?

I’m conscious that my readership isn’t only children. Children’s books are encountered by parents, older ‘reluctant’ readers, booksellers, publishers, other authors & illustrators, reviewers etc. I firmly believe you need to direct the majority of humour towards your core audience but I don’t want the rest to go wanting. If there’s a poor tired parent who’s been asked by their little angel to read one of my books for the 1000th time I hope I can at least raise a brief smile with a gag about death bananas.

Issues with cross over humour: 

I do occasionally meet resistance from my publishers and others in the industry when using this multi-level humour. Weasels went through a number of rejections and a few of them were because the humour was found to be ‘too adult’. I think subsequently crossover humour has been one of my unique selling points as an author and illustrator but I’ll talk about the pitfalls I’ve encountered.

Kids won’t ‘get it’. 

If you’re going to put in jokes for grown ups it may be that not all children will understand them. Children and adults have different frames of reference and a form of humour like parody require knowledge of external context for you to get the joke. The question here is does everyone have to get every joke? I know this can be a controversial view but as long as such jokes aren’t in the majority and they provide a different form of interest too I think it’s okay if they don’t.

For instance, in Nuts in Space there’s this moment:  

Now this requires a certain knowledge of Star Wars to get this joke. It’s fairly safe to assume not all children will have seen Star Wars so they won’t. On another level though I think an evil space monkey having a duel with a Moose using strip lights is a pretty interesting thing on its own. So, if it’s not going to be funny for everyone then at least make it interesting for the others so it works on two levels. I tend to think of the interest as the first level and the added joke as the second level.

The format makes it hard to to get the balance right

I was talking to an editor recently about why there’s more cross over humour in film and tv (think pixar films etc) than kids books and they said it’s perhaps because a picture book is like a haiku. Every word needs to count whereas in a film it’s one of many. Therefore in a picture book it’s much easier to upset the balance because too much of the content operates on the second level, excluding part of your audience. This is certainly a risk for simpler, more linear, picture books though it’s not impossible to achieve cross over humour in this context. Jon Klassen’s I Want my Hat Back has a kind of deadpan humour that appeals to adults whilst successfully telling a tale about a nefariously stolen hat to children. It works on those two levels and it does this consistently throughout the story. This subtle technique is way beyond the likes of me so I approach it in a different way. I work in a detailed, information heavy, manner so I can sneak in the odd moment of second level humour amongst the falling over and fart jokes.

What’s appropriate?

There’s all sorts of theories and differing opinions about what’s appropriate to include in children’s books and this does impact on the kind of humour you can use. For instance some toilet humour could be considered too revolting or some slapstick too violent. I encountered this recently in regards to dog turds. To be precise, this turd here: 

It’s the punchline of a joke which I’m not going to reveal in full because it’ll ruin the ending of my new book The Mystery of the Haunted Farm (yes that was a shameless plug). It seems the British reader has no problems with the odd dog poo but the publisher worried Americans would find this dog turd disgusting instead of funny because they have different standards of what’s acceptable. This lead to months of debate and extensive consultation with an American publisher to decide if dog turds are acceptable punch line for a picture book. Eventually it was decided that the turd could stay but it was a close run thing. I had to remove the blue bottles flying around it though. It’s a hard life.

Using cross over humour can be like walking on a knife edge desperately trying to keep your balance. Despite this it’s the times when I’ve done a reading of one of my books and I’ve got both kids and parents laughing that makes all the fretting, rewrites and frantic colouring in worth it. So if you’ll excuse me I’m off to draw a pig wearing underpants falling down toilet whilst dressed like Darth Vader and do it all over again.

Elys Dolan's latest picture book Nuts in Space is published by Nosy Crow.

Find out more about Elys and her books at
You can also follow Elys on twitter @ElysDolan


Abie Longstaff said...

I love this post, Elys. I try and use cross-over humour in my picture books too, I think because, as a parent, I know how it feels to have to read a book over and over again to a child. It's nice for the parents to have something to look at too :) I don't use toilet humour or slapstick much but I do use parody a lot. In my Fairytale Hairdresser books and I try to riff off old tales or nursery rhymes and find in-jokes there. I do think it's fine that some humour goes over the children's heads - it becomes more like a pantomime, where some jokes are for adults and some for children.

Jonathan Emmett said...

Thanks for a great post, Elys.

I think it's fine to include jokes for adults in a picture book providing they don't detract from a young reader's enjoyment of the book. I adored the Asterix books as a child, but didn't get some of the jokes in them until I re-read them to my son, which made sharing them a rewarding experience for us both.

As you say in the post, it's about finding the right balance.

And I'm all for referencing films and other media. I think picture books are often a little too insular in their outlook. Mark Oliver and I sneaked several references to our favourite sci-fi films and TV shows into 'Aliens: An Owner's Guide.'

Jon Burgess Design said...

Nice post. I think cross over humour is a god thing as long as it doesn't get in the way of the story etc. After all, you have two adult 'filter's' to go through before a child even sees a book, publishers and parents/librarians, although they are both second guessing what a child 'really' wants. . But still, you need to appeal to them in some way too. .

Sarah said...

My 8 year old and I LOVE your books. They sort of remind me of Richard Scarry with all the things going on in the background. I think the levels of humor are important--sure, kids won't get it all, but us parents, who read the books a million times, appreciate it. :)

Paeony Lewis said...

Thanks for getting me thinking, Elys. Interesting. I've realised I use silly irony (I think!) and sometimes I reread a manuscript and tell myself I need to add more fun. However, I don't intentionally add humour aimed at the adult, but instead I hope the adult takes wry humour from some of the situations that will strike a chord (if that makes sense?!).

Lynne Garner said...

My first book was about a troll with a bottom problem (Dog Did It) and the follow on was about bad manners (Bad Manners Benjie) so toilet humour is my thing. However I sadly also get the Star Wars and Star Trek parodies.

I think the best laugh out loud moment I've had with a book was the ending of Tadpoles Promise. If you haven't read it then you're in for a treat. I've watched others read it (adults) and they either laugh straight away or are shocked then laugh.

Moira Butterfield said...

Love your post and your examples, Elys. William Shatner-Moose! Brilliant. This kind of humour is absolutely up my street, and as a parent I love it. But as you point out, it's a struggle to get crazy humour through the gatekeepers - How come the animal poo was ok but you had to remove the flies? It actually makes me feel angry to hear things like that. It's censorship of the kind of surreal creativity that the British in particular are good at. Power to your elbow.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Elys, for a really interesting read. I'd say that cross-over appeal is absolutely critical since it's the adults (usually) who read the books. And if that includes humour, all the better. I agree that for adult parody to work in a picture book, it needs to be extremely well balanced with humour for children. Being respectful to your child reader and giving him or her a feeling of power through reading the book is so important. If you have the adult laughing at something 'secret', then I think it could feel disrespectful/disempowering to the child IF he or she isn't laughing at something else at the same time. I think this can be done really well in picture books, but it does have to be done extremely well. The time when I don't like it (and I know I might make myself unpopular by saying this) is in pantomime where you've got double entendres that will go over children's heads. I do feel that using implied sexual references almost 'to get one over on children who aren't quite sophisticated to get it' is just disrespectful to children and pretty much, mocking them. The kind of parodying you've referred to in picture books here is wholly different -the difference between a joke that would be too complicated for a child to get straight away because it would involve references that he or she is not familiar with (as with reference to films etc) and a joke that the adult who is hearing it -in the company of a child- would not be comfortable sharing with a child.
Thank you for getting me thinking about different kinds of humour!