I have been working on a story that is not funny—and I think it needs to be. It’s not that I want this to be a comic story with lots of laughs—like Weasels who want to take over the world.
But the story has felt too unremittingly trudging. And it’s a picturebook! It seems to need a little lightener.
It’s not unusual to lighten dark stories with a humorous character. We can all recall how the Porter in the play Macbeth breaks the tension surrounding the murder of the king with his soliloquy on portering at the gates of Hell. But what I’m working on is for young kids—no door-keeper for the gates of Hell in this story.
Well, he doesn’t toss in a comical character. But Louie’s sad tone is broken by the thoughtfulness of the two kids who are putting on the show, Susie and Roberto. When Louie stands up at the beginning of the show and starts talking to Gussie, they don’t yell at him or laugh at him:
We’d better have Gussie answer him,” Susie says. And she says, in Gussie’s voice, “Hi Louie. Nice to see you. But me and the mouse gotta get on with the show. Won’t you please sit down? There’s lots more to come.”
After the show, when they offer Louie a chance to say good-bye to Gussie and he grabs her and won’t put her down, they do not grab back:
“What’ll I do now?" Susie whispered to Roberto.
“Gussie is very tired,” explained Roberto.
“She has to go home now.”
At the end of the story, Louie receives a note that says, “Go outside and follow the long green string.” At the end of the string is a gift from Susie and Roberto—Gussie.
Without the kindnesses of these two kids, Louie’s story would be too bleak for young readers. It would read more like a case study. The kindnesses balance Louie’s loneliness and make a satisfying whole.
the way to recognize Uncle Jim is to “Just look at Mama’s face with a big nose and a mustache!” Then there's Lydia's own perky personality that gives buoyancy to the story. And Lydia has a goal—to get a smile out of Uncle Jim. That goal is the thread that pulls us through the story. Lydia plans a surprise. Will it be enough to make Uncle Jim smile?
So back to work, with a few new tools—maybe I’ll add a new character to this story; or add something to the main character or braid in threads of kindness toward my main character; or add humor along the way through image or metaphor, or dialogue; or—probably hardest of all— find a way to express that one question that won’t be answered until the end of the book.
For the long haul, I’m going to take up reading cartoonist Bob Mankoff’s blog to develop my humor muscles and keep watching for other picture books that blend humor with the hard stuff. I'd love to hear about your favorites.