Monday, March 19, 2018

Is This Thing On?: Giving Voice to Funny Female Authors

Funny kidlit writers Marcie Colleen (Love, Triangle and the Super Happy Party Bears chapter book series) and Audrey Vernick (Bogart and Vinnie, and co-author of Bob, Not Bob!) join their literary agents, Susan Hawk of Upstart Crow and Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency, to talk about women, humor, and children’s books. 

Erin: It’s a pleasure to be in this virtual space with you all! The first thing I want to ask of you, Marcie, is who are your favorite funny picture book writers and illustrators who happen to be female? For me, other than present company, the folks who pop immediately to mind are Ame Dyckman, Deborah Underwood, Pat Zietlow Miller, and Lucy Ruth Cummins. (Full disclosure: Pat and Deborah are EMLA clients.) Those four are all funny in different ways. And Ame and Lucy make me laugh on Twitter ALL THE TIME.

Marcie: Wow! You named some powerhouses there. I would have to add Tara Lazar, Tammi Sauer, Samantha Berger, and Julie Falatko. These women are always making me laugh out loud in the children’s section of the bookstore. And I have used many of their books for inspiration. In fact, I even used the title and concept Tara’s 7 ATE 9 as inspiration for LOVE, TRIANGLE. You know you are funny when your title and simple concept induces laughter.

Erin: I adore 7 ATE 9 and I am so glad there will be sequels! I’m sure Tara would be honored to know you were inspired by her work when you wrote LOVE, TRIANGLE.

Susan: Ah, funny women and books – this is fun! I’d add Kate Beaton, Abby Hanlon and Laurie Keller. And we haven’t even gotten to novels, where I think of Polly Horvath, Lisa Lewis Tyre and Shelley Tougas (those last two are Upstart Crow clients). From my own childhood, I think of Ellen Raskin’s picture books, which are droll and clever, and reading them made me feel smart. I love this about certain sophisticated, funny books for kids – as a child, having the feeling that you get the joke too - that’s golden. I’m a fan of all kinds of funny – silly, slapstick, goofball, odd, you name it – but this particular kind of humor, the kind that winks at the kid and invites them in, I appreciate that very much.

Audrey: Oh, I love that, Susan! I hadn’t thought of that as a category, but that’s exactly right. I remember reading a review once that said something like the book would especially appeal to kids just learning that books can be sarcastic too, and it seemed like the highest praise there could be.

Marcie: My question is why are many of these women forgotten come awards time? I mean, sure they make lots of state lists, etc. But big time awards usually leave out the funny...and funny women at that. Is this just like the Oscars in which funny is considered less worthy?

Audrey: I think this transcends gender. You rarely see any funny books win awards (other than the Sid Fleischman, an award for humor). I think you put your finger on it--funny is considered less worthy, perhaps easier than a book that touches your soul in a different way. I’d love to see the publishing world offer up a Golden Globe response--instead of lumping comedies and dramas into Best Picture, as the Oscars do, providing a category for each.

Susan: Absolutely agree that funny is overlooked. What’s so confounding is that it’s so hard to get right! I think most writers know how tricky humor really is, but more broadly there is the idea that it’s not to be taken seriously. And, in not understanding how carefully crafted it must be, we miss what a deeply powerful tool humor is. Editors are always asking for it, kids love it – because we all love to laugh, but also because humor gives a story the punch that makes it stay with a reader forever. ARNIE THE DOUGHNUT is a great book about overcoming differences and preconceptions, about accepting people for who they are, but you remember it because it made you laugh so hard, right?

Erin: I noticed that the Golden Kite Award for picture book text often recognizes funny books, but the Charlotte Zolotow Award, also for picture books, doesn’t seem to tip that way. It’s too early to call which way the Margaret Wise Brown Award might go, on the aggregate, as it’s only been given out twice. I thought that perhaps awards focused on text only would be more likely to recognize humor, as humor is just so difficult to pull off well in such a short format...but firstly, it doesn’t necessarily bear out, and secondly, credit is certainly also due to the illustrators of funny books!

Audrey: Have there been any recentish releases that have tickled your funny bone? Three relative newcomers I’m excited about are:

Author/illustrator Marianna Coppo’s PETRA (I can’t wait to read her forthcoming A VERY LATE STORY)
Bunmi Laditan’s, THE BIG BED (You may know her as creator of THE HONEST TODDLER), illustrated by Tom Knight
Cate Berry’s PENGUIN & TINY SHRIMP DON’T DO BEDTIME! (Prediction: Cate is a force of nature and she will knock us all down with her funny), illustrated by Charles Santoso

Marcie: Oh, I had the pleasure of creating a Teacher’s Guide and Reader’s Theater script for Cate Berry’s PENGUIN & TINY SHRIMP book. It is very funny! And I love how it breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader.
Others I am looking forward to are:

POTATO PANTS by Laurie Keller
ERASER by Anna Kang

In fact, I wish I wrote ERASER. What an adorable concept!

Erin: Looks like I have a new to-buy list for my next bookstore trip!

Audrey: Question for the agents: Do you perceive any difference in how editors respond to funny picture books written by men and those written by women? I ask because I harbor a belief that women’s funny books are expected to also show heart.

Erin: You and I have talked about this quite a bit, Audrey--and on the flip side, in the last week a client expressed frustration that men can get away with sweet-emotion-driven topics (like LOVE) but if women tried that, it would get called sappy. I think in general women have narrower acceptable parameters and part of what I hope from this month of posts is that by drawing attention to that, we’ll see those parameters widen and have more gender parity. Susan, have you noticed this kind of response with editors, when it comes to funny texts written by women? Marcie and Audrey, would you say any of the examples you’ve mentioned are just straight-up funny for funny’s sake, without a balance of “heart”?

Susan: How interesting! I haven’t noticed that humor from a female writer has to have heart, but now I’m going to go back and look. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it’s the case. There’s also the issue of the unwritten rules about what works for kids. I think adult gate-keepers want to protect kids, and believe they can only understand and relate to certain themes/ideas etc. That doesn’t do them justice -- kids are quite sophisticated readers and thinkers. It follows that they can understand and appreciate humor that’s more sophisticated too – that they don’t require “heart” to the degree we assume. I think this is an issue in kids books generally, not just with humor.

Marcie: Interestingly, I have seen a handful of picture books recently published, written by male rockstar authors that do not have heart and layers that fall flat for me. They seem one-note and silly for silly’s sake. Not sure a woman would get away with that...but at the same time, definitely not the kind of “funny” I want to be known for writing.

Erin: The one that always comes to mind for me that is massively successful and subversively funny but completely lacking in heart is I WANT MY HAT BACK. Audrey and I actually have joked-not-joked about sending out one of her more straight-up funny projects under a false author name, a male name, to see if the reception is different, but firstly I don’t think editors would appreciate the switcheroo, and secondly, it doesn’t really get to the heart of the problem, even if it might prove vindictively satisfying. I think just lifting up funny female voices, as we’ve done here, is part of the solution. For funny authors (all authors, not just women) who don’t also illustrate, suggesting female illustrators can certainly lead to raising the numbers of funny women getting the spotlight. I love that Audrey’s illustrators for her two newest picture books are women, thanks to the editors and art directors involved: Diana Schoenbrun for TAKE YOUR OCTOPUS TO SCHOOL DAY and Jennifer Bower for THE FUNNIEST MAN IN BASEBALL. Any other ideas or words of parting wisdom?

Marcie: Let’s make a vow to keep shining a light on funny female authors, ok? If a rising tide raises all ships, perhaps a giggling gale could power the sails of many other funny kidlit books authored by women in the future? Maybe we can vow to celebrate funny female voices on social media every Madcap Monday or TeeHee Tuesday or Witty Wednesday.

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