Dead Funny: Who Says All the Funny Women Are Alive?
Today marks Day 3 in our celebration of humor, women, and children’s literature. Produced in tandem with the release of my anthology of funny female writers and illustrators (Funny Girl, Viking) so far we’ve seen the following:
Day #1: Children’s Book Biographies of Funny Women
Day #2: What Other Projects My Contributors to Funny Girl Are Up To
Today we switch gears a little to honor women who wrote funny books for kids, or were funny themselves, and are now gone. It wasn’t hard to come up with names for this list, at first. Then I noticed, much to my chagrin, that most of the women I could think of were white. This is a problem, and while I could certainly point a finger at the publishing industry’s reluctance to put out serious works by women of color, let alone funny ones, that’s just passing the buck. So to you, dear readers, I ask that you send me some names of funny women of color that I can add to this list. And anyone else you can think of that I’ve missed as well, for that matter.
Paula Danziger (1945-2004)
This anecdote starts off with a humble brag and gets worse from there, so consider yourself warned.
So I’m in the Campbell Apartments of Grand Central Station talking to Brian Jacques about his audio version of Wind in the Willows (you were warned) and the conversation turns to, of all things, the author Paula Danziger. Apparently Brian and Paula were good friends back in the day. Many of us know that she wrote funny books like The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, the Amber Brown series, and the sci-fi novel This Place Has No Atmosphere. Turns out, she was a cut up in real life as well, often saying that if she hadn’t been an author she would have been a stand-up comedian. The story Brian told me involved Paula and a ball pit. I’ll let your mind fill in the details.
Trina Schart Hyman (1939-2004)
You may have noticed that 2004 was a deadly year. I take it personally since it was the first year I started working as a children’s librarian and hadn’t had a chance to meet all my heroes, like Trina, yet. I grew up with her work from a very young age and when I learned that I’d missed my chance to meet her it killed me. Trina was remarkable not just because she was funny in real life (read her Caldecott acceptance speech if you don’t believe me) but also because she was an honest-to-goodness illustrating trickster. Recently Jules Danielson and I recounted one of her more notorious tricks in our guest newsletter for Two Bossy Dames, though you can read far more of them in our book Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature. She remains remarkably missed. I just plunged down the rabbit hole of this Pinterest page looking at her work, and I’d advise you to do the same.
Barbara Park (1947-2013)
When Diary of a Wimpy Kid was first hitting its stride, I decided to make a list of readalikes for kids who’d blown through all two of them (this was a while ago) and wanted more funny fare. Casually, I mentioned to my husband that I was looking for funny books, and he mentioned a beloved title from his youth. “Skinnybones . . . put Skinnybones on the list.” Okay. Never heard of that one before. So I looked it up and lo and behold not only was it in print but it had a new cover and was apparently written by one Barbara Park. Now Park is probably best remembered for her Junie B. Jones book series (one of the most adored/loathed in the history of children’s literature) but I feel like all too often Junie distracts from the other books she penned. Park had a whole slew of funny books for kids, not limited to good old Skinnybones. These were all reprinted about ten or so years ago, probably because of Junie’s popularity. They’re what I’ll remember her for best, I think.
Patricia McKissack (1944-2017)
I debated whether or not to include Ms. McKissack since her death was so recent, but then at lunch yesterday I was reading her remarkable 2017 collection Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs & Stories From an African American Childhood (illustrated by Brian Pinkney) and on top of the funny stuff in that book I was reminded of her tales like Precious and the Boo Hag and Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters. Books that honestly make you laugh out loud. She had the funny in her and the books showed it.
Coleen Salley (1929-2008)
Now Salley’s an interesting case. This wasn’t just an author of children’s books. Coleen was a professor of children’s literature and founded the Coleen Salley-Bill Morris Literacy Foundation. I had the honor of seeing her in person once, just after Katrina when ALA held their annual conference in New Orleans. There was supposed to be a party with absinthe at a W Hotel in town, but the W had freaked out over the possibility and so we had mint juleps instead. The blow (such as it was) was softened by the presence of Ms. Salley who could command a room with seemingly little effort. Her Epossumondas books live on to this day.
Kay Thompson (1909-1998)
Now granted, she had her issues. But you cannot deny that the Eloise books are written with a distinct, one-of-a-kind sense of humor. A kind of humor that, as we have seen all too often, is shockingly difficult to replicate. Kay started out as a cabaret singer, turned into a movie star, and then to her utter chagrin ended up best known for, of all things, Eloise. Eloise might never have been meant for kids when she was originally conjured up as a cabaret act, but Hilary Knight gave her enough child-friendliness to launch her into the stratosphere. And like it or not, Kay too.
Louise Fitzhugh (1928-1974)
What a weird little novel Harriet the Spy is. What a funny strange character. Plus not only was Fitzhugh’s writing funny, but her art as well. Sandra Scoppettone is still, to the best of my knowledge, alive and well today so I can’t include her on today’s list. But what I can include is Louise, who illustrated Scoppettone’s mock novelette of Eloise called Suzuki Beane. That book is nothing short of genius. If I ever got a tattoo, it would be of Suzuki dancing. Find a copy of the book (and good luck with that) and you’ll see why.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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