Children's and Young Adult

Elys Dolan recommends

Funny Books for Kids

Elys Dolan, author of Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory and rising star of the picture book world, on the funniest illustrated books for reading at bedtime—and why children’s characters needn’t always set good moral examples.

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    1

    Happy Magic Forest: Slug of Doom
    by Matty Long

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    2

    The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales
    by Jon Scieszka

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    3

    Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!
    by Mo Willems

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    4

    This Is Not My Hat
    by Jon Klassen

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    5

    Father Christmas Goes on Holiday
    by Raymond Briggs

Elys Dolan

Elys Dolan is an author and illustrator living in Cambridge. Her books include Steven Seagull Action Hero and Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory. Elys has been shortlisted for The Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2013, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2014, and nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal 2016. She is also studying for a PhD on comedy in picture books at Anglia Ruskin University. 

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Elys Dolan

Elys Dolan is an author and illustrator living in Cambridge. Her books include Steven Seagull Action Hero and Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory. Elys has been shortlisted for The Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2013, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2014, and nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal 2016. She is also studying for a PhD on comedy in picture books at Anglia Ruskin University. 

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What drew you to the career of children’s author and illustrator?

I did all the usual things, school and grew up (kind of).  And then I went to art school. I studied fine art. Which is all big and important art—like pickled sharks and piles of bricks and flickery strip lights and stuff. I figured out fairly quickly that I didn’t fit into flickery strip lights and pickled sharks. I used to go to the Tate Modern a lot to see exhibitions and things. I found I was spending a lot more time in the gift shop than actually looking at the art. They have the most amazing children’s books section there as well. I kept looking at these books and thinking they were amazing, so interesting, why aren’t I doing this? So after I finished my degree I went off to do a masters in children’s book illustration. Which is an actual real thing!

My intention was that I was just going to illustrate because I could draw, but I’d never tried writing anything before. We were encouraged to have a go at writing our own stories in this course—partly because you can achieve marvellous things with the combination of words and pictures, and also because I was told you got paid more that way! So I wrote my very first book while I was on that course called Weasles. It was published, it was bought, people liked it and I’ve been asked to do more books ever since. I’m currently studying for a PhD in funny books for children.

My children and I relished your latest book Mr Bunny’s Chocolate Factory. And it was reading this book that made me want to talk to you about children’s books that make us laugh. Not only did this book make my little family laugh (the exchanges between the chickens are hilarious) but it also has a huge theme—Mr Bunny has a chocolate egg factory which takes off in an Orwellian nightmare of industrialisation. It’s brilliant and it would be chilling were it not so funny… and combined with an awful lot of chocolate!

I never intended it. It just sort of developed through the writing that Mr Bunny became this crazed industrialist driving his workers, who are chickens. And who are, by the way, having none of this poor treatment.

“Mr Bunny became this crazed industrialist driving his workers, who are chickens”

It was a new thing for me. I‘ve done a lot of parody, things that involve physical humour and wordplay. But something satirical like this is new territory.

And it’s strangely prescient, isn’t it, in our current Brexit and Trump era?

I know. Brexit and Trump are the kind of things we would have only seen in our nightmares a couple of years ago. When I started writing this we were all laughing at Trump and Brexit wasn’t even a word. Even so at the time I began writing things did seem, in my opinion, to be taking a down turn. Which, on reflection, might be why some of this has turned up in my work. The culture I consume does end up getting reworked as picture books.

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I spoke about Weasles earlier—that was very much weasles plotting world domination in a Bond-villainesque way. They are not very good at it. And that’s because of films I’ve watched and cultural reference points which get reworked in my head and come out as cute animals in a children’s picture book. But recently, partly as I’ve become older, I’ve started caring about the world and watching the news and being terrified by everything I see, I think some of that has definitely come through in Mr Bunny. I feel that the world needs more fairness and this is a really important theme in Mr Bunny.

We were talking about laughter—but there is a serious side to comedy, in that the funniest things are often the truest. Life is tough and it’s all too easy to lose a sense of proportion, humour plays an important part in rebalancing our hopes and fears.

After all the stresses of the day, when it comes to our bedtime stories often my kids and I just need a bit of a giggle together. And after a good giggle we can then go to sleep with a smile. Which leads me on to your choices for books which make us and our children laugh. Let’s start with Super Happy Magic Forest: Slug of Doom by Matty Long

Super Happy Magic Forest: Slug of Doom by Matty Long is a fabulous parody of fantasy tropes and it’s one of those most rare things—it’s a sequel that is better than the original. But this book is all about detail, and the detail is marvellous. You can spot all the little sub-plots going on next to the main plot and all of these little one-off jokes and asides create a really interesting, fully formed, fully functional —full of rivalries, relationships, misunderstandings, disasters, heroics and mishaps that take place within it. Your eye can scan the bustling double-spreads, making new discoveries and find new funny bits with every re-reading.

Another parody-based story from your five is The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith.

This is a book from my childhood. And I find it as funny now as an adult as I did back then. But perhaps for different reasons. One of the things I love about it now is the way it takes the conventions of the picture book – the usual order being a title page, contents page etc – and turns these conventions on their heads. So the chicken turns up on the contents page flapping about and eventually gets squashed by it. The book is almost a character—certainly it is very much the landscape of the story.

“This book is all about detail, and the detail is marvellous”

The children listening to (or being read) this story are in on the joke, they know that this is not the correct telling of The Gingerbread Man which is the important thing. They know that everything in this book has been turned it’s head and not as it should be. The kids understand this which gives them a slight edge of superiority. Often there is an edge of superiority when it comes to getting a joke.

Being in on the joke is an important element of your next choice Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus by Mo Willems. In this story the pigeon is clearly a highly unsuitable

candidate for a bus driver: a. he is temperamentally unsound and immoral, and b. he is a pigeon.

Yes! It’s the characterisation which is so very good in this book. There is so little in this book apart from the pigeon trying to convince you (the reader) to let him drive the bus. It’s so simple and yet so expressive. It shows what can be done with just a few lines and a limited palate, and bags of talent! The huge range of emotions, how exaggerated they are: the pigeon does everything from pleading, to going into a massive rage, to trying to bribe you with a fiver, to downright manipulation: “Your mum would let me.”

Next we move on to the totally deadpan, dry-as-a-bone humour of Jon Klassen in This Is Not My Hat.

The thing that makes this so clever is the way he uses counterpoint between the words and the images. We see that the fish has stolen a hat. The words simply tell us what the fish is thinking. So we can clearly see that this fish has totally misjudged the situation (and this is about being in on the joke again). We know from the pictures that this story is not going to end well for this fish. The fish knows he has done something bad so he subjects the reader to a lot of self-justification. The timing is almost perfect. It is perfect. I love the moment when the fish tells us that someone has seen him but that he knows this individual (a crab) won’t tell. And the very next page is the crab pointing to where he has gone.

“Talking about humour is like dissecting a frog: the process is horrible, and at the end the frog has died”

The page thing is so clever and bold—the first double spreads are just the big fish—I mean this is a lot of storytelling space to use up when you’ve only got 24 pages to play with. These first spreads are simply the big fish waking up and the only thing that changes is his eye. This slow pacing at the beginning and those slight changes show us just how much trouble the little fish is going to be in and what a threat the big fish is. If Klassen hadn’t set it up like this in the beginning that joke may not have worked. But it does.

Finally we come to Father Christmas Goes on Holiday by Raymond Briggs. Certainly this was one of the most important books in my house when I was growing up and continues to be for my children today. A timeless classic. I’m stunned by how funny it is.

Yes! And there are a couple of levels on which it works well. He takes Father Christmas, a figure we know so well: he is big and jolly, he has reindeer, he lives on the North Pole, he has elves. But Raymond Briggs tells us that Father Christmas, in fact, lives in a terrace house with a dog and a cat and is a miserable old sod. So we begin with this brilliant bit of incongruity, the mixture of Father Christmas and just normal everyday life that we can all recognise. Then Briggs asks how might Father Christmas act in these ordinary situations. The reason I like Father Christmas Goes on Holiday so much is that, for example, putting him on a lilo a Las Vegas swimming pool is about as far from our conventional idea of Father Christmas as it is possible to get.

“Father Christmas goes to a French campsite and gets diarrhoea, then he goes to Vegas and gets horribly drunk”

The other thing Briggs is so brilliant at is observational comedy—he shows us how ridiculous life can be. So Father Christmas goes to a French campsite and gets terrible diarrhoea, then he goes to Vegas and gets horribly drunk, overdoes it, is shocked by a huge bill and gets sunburnt! I’m not sure that getting drunk in Vegas happens to everyone but a lot of it is stuff that happens to ordinary people and Father Christmas reacts as they would. It is funny because he is Father Christmas. Especially for a child because Father Christmas is such a big deal. This is one of the first times you can think of Father Christmas as a normal guy.

I agree. I love it when a children’s book character is allowed to be grumpy—or ill-behaved. There is a lot of pressure on children’s book characters to behave well or set a good example, or have a high moral compass.

Yes, and I like it when there isn’t a happy ending! I like it when things end and they are just kind of okay—Father Christmas has this incredible adventure, yet, when he gets home he is just relieved. He’d had an alright time, but not great.

I try not to set out to make a funny book. Trying to be funny is never funny. EB White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, had some brilliant advice, he said, “talking about humour is like dissecting a frog: the process is horrible and at the end the frog has died!” So I try not to kill too many frogs while I’m making a book.

Interview by Zoe Greaves

April 17, 2017

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