Do We Expect Nonfiction to Be Serious?
When I was compiling a list of different kinds of stories, poems, horoscopes, etc. I wanted to see in my book Funny Girl, I was hoping to appeal to as wide an array of interests as possible. Sportsy kids. Kids who like real stories. Comics. You name it. And, of course, I wanted some Nonfiction in there.
Unfortunately, I learned pretty quickly that if you ask a Nonfiction author to be funny on command, oftentimes that very request stumps them. And who can blame them? How do you pluck humor from reality when that reality isn’t inherently hilarious?
I was remembering all this the other day when I published a list of 2019 titles. Carol Hinz responded to it, saying, “It’s interesting to see just two nonfiction books listed here. I’d add this spring’s FLOWER TALK by @saraclevine, but this makes me wonder whether most people (including me) expect books with facts to be SERIOUS.”
It got me to thinking. Funny Nonfiction isn’t particularly common, but it most certainly exists. But how do you go about it? Let’s look at some of the funnier books of 2019 and see how they tackled the challenge.
Beware of the Crocodile by Martin Jenkins, ill. Satoshi Kitamura
Sounds a little strange but between this and Maxwell Eaton’s book (located at the bottom of this list) crocodiles are the funniest animals of 2019. Not sure how old chompy here earned such an honor. Though the facts are straightforward, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be gotten out of this title. Terrifying hunters. Fantastic mothers. This funny and scary book will give you the low-down and dirty on one of nature’s finest predators.
Flower Talk: How Plants Use Color to Communicate by Sara Levine, ill. Masha D’Yans
One thing I’ve noticed with funny nonfiction is that it follows many of the same rules I reserve for nonfiction comics. Which is to say, if the character speaking is OBVIOUSLY made up for the book (in this case, a chatty prickly pear) then there’s no problem including it in a title that is ostensibly about “facts”. I’ll need to wax loquacious a little later about this book (let’s just say it blew my mind re: plants and their colors), so for now just enjoy the fact that it’s a marvelous amalgamation of funny and serious.
How Did I Get Here? Your Story From the Big Bang to Your Birthday by Philip Bunting
What a treat! We’ve seen a whole slew of picture books talking about the beginning of the universe and how it relates to you directly (heck, last year I think I saw three different titles on the subject). This cover looks awfully goofy so I was all set to disregard it in some way. Instead, it’s a hoot! My favorite page, without a doubt, has to be the one where you see all the critters and then Bunting writes in this footnote: “Our ancestors first developed eyes at about this stage in our journey. All peepers on creatures and creations before this point in the book have been gratuitously added for comic effect.” So it may just be my overwhelming love of googly eyes that tips the balance, but honestly the writing is great and the art darned peppy.
I’m Trying to Love Math by Bethany Barton
Making evolution funny? Easy. Flowers? Piece of cake. Crocodiles? Don’t make me laugh. So how do you go about making math funny? You know that I’m on the Mathical Book Prize committee every year and I can attest that funny math books are the rarest of the rare nonfiction titles. This is the latest in Barton’s “Trying” series, and clinches the notion that she is never, ever allowed to stop making these books. Ever.
Just Like Rube Goldberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Behind the Machines by Sarah Aronson, ill. Robert Neubecker
How is it that the world’s greatest inventor never saw any of his inventions brought to life? This kicky little biography shows what can happen when you follow your dreams. Even the weird ones. Two years ago my family bought a Rube Goldberg calendar and my daughter hasn’t stopped talking about it since. I was so pleased with the look, the feel, and the telling of this tale. I adored the endpapers! It helps when your subject is such a fun guy too.
Periods Say Stop. by Michael Dahl ill, Chris Garbutt
And you thought making math funny was hard? Try grammar. This covers punctuation in different forms, but is first and foremost about periods. It’s also the rare interactive nonfiction book. As one of my librarians pointed out, kids being read this book get to yell, “STOP!” at the end of pages. And, as we all know, if you can create a funny nonfiction picture book all in one go, you’ve just won all the things.
Rocket to the Moon! by Don Brown
Most books included on this list today are for younger readers. Indeed, older fare doesn’t usually get to include humor. And I wouldn’t consider Don Brown’s book a usual contender, were it not for the fact that my kids found it extra especially funny at times when I read it. A beautifully encapsulated rendering of the history of flight, there are sight gags here that are worth seeking out.
Skulls! by Blair Thornburgh, ill. Scott Campbell
Skulls ARE funny, aren’t they? So why not find a book that embraces that fact?
The Truth About Crocodiles by Maxwell Eaton III
Most of the books in Eaton’s new series came out last year, so it was with great joy that I noted that this one is out this year. If Eaton could just continue to make THESE books for all time, I’d be one happy pooky.
And, as ever, additional suggestions for the 2019 publishing year are more than welcome.
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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