With a four-year-old in the house, there's a lot of laughter that fits into our day. He runs in circles and falls down from being too dizzy; we all laugh. It starts to rain on us as we dash into the grocery store, and we giggle at the raindrops on our cheeks and chins. At dinnertime, my daughter stabs her fork at a grape and it flies off the plate; we all grin, then double over in hysterics when she falls out of her chair as she reaches for the runaway... Simple humor is a healthy part of our days and keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously. We enjoy being a silly family.
But lately I've been noticing that children's picture book writers are going beyond the simple humor that little ones seem to most enjoy, and heading down the windy road of satire and sarcasm. My four-year-old and I visit the library each and every Tuesday, and the first books we pick are from the just purchased/new-to-the-library stack; I like the fresh, crispy pages that are still smudge free, and it's fun, from an author's perspective, to see what today's editors are working on.
Feeling a bit perplexed by some of the recent books we've encountered, I did some research on the use of sarcasm in children. After several days of poking my head into a variety of studies, the conclusion seems simple, and apparently undebated. Small children do not understand, use, or appreciate sarcasm. One psychologist, Penny Pexman who has conducted research in this field at the University of Calgary, writes, \"Our study suggests that five-year-olds are beginning to understand the simplest form of sarcasm and are getting better at it, but still by the age of eight they really don't find it funny...\"
It appears that the age range of when children understand, and use this form of humor is the one aspect that is debated. Some studies state that children as young as three show signs of understanding sarcasm, yet other researchers claim that it isn't until adolescence that the full force of sarcasm can be reached. I can personally attest to the fact that both my 13 and 15-year-olds have sarcasm completely figured out, but my four-year-old—and the other preschoolers that I hang out with? Not a chance.
Sarcasm is a sophisticated form of humor. The word \"sarcasm\" is derived from the ancient Greek, meaning \"to tear flesh, gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.\" Merriam-Webster defines it this way: \"a sharp and often satirical or ironic utterance designed to cut or give pain.\" A study done in 1978 by Sigelman and Davis describes sarcasm beautifully.
Sarcasm is a language behavior that occurs when speakers' intentions differ from their actual verbal messages. That is, a speaker thinks or believes one way, but says something different. Typically, a sarcastic speaker cues their true intent with nonverbal behaviors such as rolling eyes, shrugging, smirking, a sneering voice, or other features that say, \"I do not mean what I say.\" Adults hear the message and see the nonverbal cues that contradict that message and realize the speaker is being sarcastic. Adults have learned to believe nonverbal cues over verbal cues when the two cues conflict.
So, the broad question I'm grappling with is: Why are editors pursuing this form of humor for picture books? I can understand the use of snarky language when it comes to easy readers, or middle grade novels, but picture books that are meant for toddlers through 8-year-olds? I'm baffled...
Instead of singling out books that have struck a questioning chord with me, I'd like to mention two examples of newly released picture books that, in my mind, really work humor-wise for young readers.
Too Purpley! by Jean Reidy, illustrated by Genevieve Leloup. This is a really silly, illustrative feast for the eyes about the various forms of dress one can choose (too purpley, too fancy, too polka-dotty...). What makes this book so fun, even for a little boy, is the young girl's companion, a pet turtle that is continually making funny faces or looking ridiculous. Kids get the visual humor in this book, that it's pretty silly to dress up a turtle in fancy or feathery clothes, or for a girl to wear an outfit that has stripes going in every direction possible. This is the perfect book for a 2 to 4-year-old girl who loves, loves, loves to dress up.
Waiting for Winter by Sebastian Meschenmoser is one of my favorite new books on the market. The artwork is superb, most pages being pencil drawings that are subtle and soft and whimsical, but the text is not subtle, it's even a bit boisterous, with a fair amount of exclamation points and outlandishness. The combination works and when the characters who have never seen a snowflake before try to figure out what one might look like, the humor unfolds, and... I just love it.
Some of my favorite funny books are now modern classics. Cynthia Rylant's Mr. Putter and Tabby books are wonderful for giggles; I just love the story when Mr. Putter is zinging pears with a slingshot over his home and onto Mrs. Teaberry's lawn. Felicia Bond also wrote a very funny picture book, titled Tumble Bumble. There's really no plot line, just a lot of fun... And there's always Dr. Seuss and his over-the-top characters and their stories...
Anyway, my guess is that the newly released picture books that have a fair amount of sarcasm in the text will probably gain some attention from adult readers, but I'm doubtful that a four or five-year-old would give these books a five star review. But, you never know what might strike a chord in the mind of a little reader. I was astonished recently when my adventurous, very boyish, machine-loving, Tom Sawyer-like child discovered Mousie Love. A romantic tale ALL about two mice falling in love... He “loves” it. Go figure...