People who work in humor aren't usually thought to have solemn public sides. The business of humor is to elicit mirth, preferably great gushing gales of it. But, as my friends and family will attest, I can be just as sullen and depressing as the next person.
I am a writer of humorous fiction for young adults and children. I work in humor because I believe that humorous books teach young people to use laughter against the storms of life. There's clinically proven power in humor to change our bodies and minds. Humor is a survival tool. "A merry heart," says the book of Proverbs, "does good like a medicine."
Medicine is weighty stuff.
Yet buried in the annals of humordom, literature, and society is a feeling that humorous things are "light" and, therefore, not weighty. A frustrated E. B. White captured the beast: "If a thing is funny, it can be presumed to be something less than great because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious."
But what of the delicate dance between humor and poignancy? Aren't laughter and tears connected? How many of us have laughed so hard that we've cried -- or, depending on our personalities, wet ourselves.
To me, using humor in life illustrates that the person or character has moved from seeing life as a series of problems or things done to them, and has moved into greater clarity and control of a situation. Humor is one of life's mirrors. Young people need to look in those mirrors to distinguish between laughter that shames and ridicules and laughter that is good-hearted and brings redemption. Often a funny incident can illuminate a problem. The beleaguered traveler wrestling with too many suitcases is a metaphor for life with too many things to carry; the overly somber adolescent contemplating the vicissitudes of an art history exam is a gentle reminder not to take ourselves so gravely.
"Humor," Mark Twain wrote, "must speak the truth." Finding that truth in characters for me evolves through a process of layering -- determining where the characters have been, what they've experienced, what they've overcome and failed abysmally at -- that's when the truth of who they are emerges and the voice becomes concrete. Characters are like children: they respond to what we expose them to, and quite often they don't pay any attention to what we say. When I get lazy in this area, I write myself into a corner -- I don't know my characters very well and can only take them so far. Humor emerges when I spend time with them, when I've found their strengths, weaknesses, and added something wacky to their personalities. That's one of the ways to get a humorous voice -- layering nutty traits over serious personalities and situations.
In my first YA novel, Squashed (Delacorte, 1992), Ellie Morgan is twenty pounds overweight and fanatical about growing giant pumpkins:
I grew giant pumpkins because I liked battle, and growing one was an everyday fight. You had to be in it for the long haul. Rain, frost, bugs, and fungus could strike at any time and stop you dead. Only certain growers are cut out to handle this pressure -- tough people of steel who can stand against the odds. Richard says giant-pumpkin growers are the spawning salmon of agriculture, since only the strongest make it upstream each year for anything worth mentioning.
Not all vegetables are this draining. Lettuce doesn't bring heartache. Turnips don't ask for your soul. Potatoes don't care where you are or even where they are. Tomatoes cuddle up to anyone who'll give them mulch and sunshine. But giants like Max need you every second. You can forget about a whiz-bang social life. I love getting into the guts of a child through the first person. For me, finding the voice is where humor flows. Here, A. J. McCreary, the seventeen-year-old photographer in Thwonk (Delacorte, 1995), my second YA novel, muses on the distant relationship with her advertising exec father:
I was standing at the kitchen door watching my father work. Dad was in another world, holding two boxes of ChocoMallow Chunks cereal -- the cherished new product of his biggest client, ChocoChunks International -- holding them like a weary father would cradle newborn twins. He was carving out a new ad campaign and reaching into the core of his creative volcano to find something important to say about a children's breakfast cereal that contained enough refined sugar to seriously alter a generation's SAT scores. I thought about clearing my voice to let him know I was there. I thought about the hurt of the last few months that kept crashing in around us.I rarely start with the joke when I'm writing. Strip away the humor in Squashed, and you'll find a girl who has an extraordinary dream, a difficult relationship with her father, and a mother who has died in a car crash when A. J. was young; she is overweight, misunderstood, but she has one remarkable gift. She can grow things! Cut back the foliage from Thwonk and meet A. J. McCreary, workaholic and gifted photographer held at arm's length by her failed filmmaker father who is determined that a career in the arts has no substance; her heart is heavy from unrequited love as she begins a journey into self-awareness and self-esteem led by a cupid who understands the dangers of his manipulative powers.
A teacher once told me, "I'm afraid to use humor in my classroom. I'm afraid the children won't all laugh." I responded that, yes, they might not laugh at all the same things, anymore than they will cry or become angry or motivated en masse by any one story. But if humor can be introduced as a search for truth, then its supreme value in the classroom is its Ah ha! quality.
William Zinsser said it all: "What I want to do is make people laugh, so they'll see things clearly." That's the kind of thinking that takes humorists beyond the joke and into the life lessons of the heart.
Joan Bauer is a YA and children's novelist. Squashed won the Delacorte Prize for a first YA novel and was selected as a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Thwonk, her second novel was released this year. Her first novel for middle readers, Sticks, will be published in June of 1996.