Monday, February 1, 2010

Writing Humor for Kids

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I would dearly love to be considered a funny person. And being considered a funny author would be even better.

So I’ve been thinking about what it takes to write humor for kids. There’s got to be more to it than adding the word “underwear” somewhere in the book, right?

Today I thought I’d share my personal take on what it takes to be funny. I mean, my personal take on what it means to write funny things. I mean…er, oh…whatever. Just read on.


Have you ever thought about the definition of humor? What is humor, anyway? This is such a hard thing to define, since what is humorous to one person might not be humorous to another. For example, I find it hilarious to contemplate the idea of two twin four-year-old boys snorkeling in a very large bowl full of milk. Their mother, on the other hand, wouldn’t find that the least bit hilarious. (BTW, I have no idea if that has ever happened in real life. But maybe someday you’ll get to read about it, since that is a scene in my unfinished humorous novel about a homeschooling family, titled [for now] Life is a Mess.)

So what is humor? The very best definition I have ever come across was given by my mentor (and all around funny author guy), Rick Walton. He says:

Humor is surprise without threat or promise.

I won’t go into great detail to explain what he means, but basically humor is something that surprises us, but doesn’t threaten us or promise anything. For example, Rick states, if someone pulled a gun on you, it would certainly be a surprise, but it wouldn’t be funny. And if Publishers Clearing House showed up on your doorstep and offered you a million dollars, it would be a surprise but you probably wouldn’t find it hilarious. I suggest you read his essay, What Is Humor?, if you want a more detailed explanation . It’s a great article, so read it. Seriously. (Sorry. There had to be something serious in this article about being funny. But now that we’ve got that out of the way…)


Now that we know what humor is, we should all be able to sit down and write copious amounts of it, right?


There is so much more to writing humor. From my research*, I’ve compiled a list of the three most important things you need to know about writing humor for kids.

1. The most important thing about writing humor is: rewriting. As far as I could tell, most writers who are hilarious said that their humor doesn’t come out in the first draft as much as it does during the revision process. So if what you are writing isn’t funny enough, keep rewriting it until it is.

For example, let’s take my snorkeling in milk idea above. Let’s say the first draft the boys just pulled the milk out of the fridge and dumped it on the floor. That would have been an okay scene, but not nearly good enough to tickle my funny bone. So, in revision, let’s say I decide to add something surprising (the snorkeling gear and a large bowl), and voila! Instant humor.

2. Pacing is VITAL to a funny story. I’m betting that those who are naturally good at pacing may have an easier time being funny. But since there is no empirical evidence on that, I can’t say for sure. On the other hand, for the most part I’m pretty good with pacing, so I’m hoping in this case I’m right. That would be a good sign for my chances at making it as a funny author, anyway.

Most people aren’t funny because they haven’t perfected their pacing, not because their ideas aren’t funny. For example, Dave Barry mentioned in an interview I read that people either a) take forever to get to what is supposed to be funny, or b) get to it then say it over and over again and never let it go. He says the best way to be funny is to not let the reader see what is coming, then hit them over the head with it, then get out of there fast and go on to something else the reader doesn’t see coming. I’m not going to give an example, because that would mean I would have used my snorkeling in milk concept one too many times and it wouldn’t be funny anymore (see b above). Yep. I’m thinking like a funny person now.

3. Know your audience. No, this doesn’t mean you should go out and get a degree in psychology and early childhood development. But you should have a basic understanding of what each age group finds funny. And sometimes that can be the hardest part when writing for children. I suggest you ask kids what they find funny. You might be surprised at what you learn. (Though I suggest you be careful with this. There is a slight chance that they will say something that not only isn’t funny but doesn’t even make sense. For example, my six-year old told me that he thought a story about a boy going on a trip and breaking his fork would be hilarious. I’m still scratching my head over that one.)


Don’t take yourself too seriously when writing humor for kids. I never take myself seriously, and that seems to be working for me. Seriously**.

Now get to work, funny people!

*My research consisted of slogging through a bunch of articles that weren’t nearly as funny as they should have been. You are so lucky to have me translating them for you. You’re welcome.

**Oops. Sorry. That second serious bit slipped into this article while I wasn’t looking. My bad.


  1. Yes! I am commenting here with nothing to say except that I googled "writing humor for kids," and when I came to read your article, I read your little about me on the side, and instantly I decided that I need to be your friend. So. Be prepared for an onslaught of comments, cause I'm 'bout to dive in yo archives. ;-)

  2. YAY! I LOVE having new friends! And dive away! Those archives are awfully dusty. I'm glad someone can find them still useful. :)