Last week in Part 1 I suggested that the elements of “boy books” could be broken down into two categories, The “Nons” and the acronym I coined called HEAVES…
We’ll begin with the one area that can grab a boy faster than almost any other in fiction, which is H, for Humor.
To many people, humor is one of those slippery areas like art – you know it when you see or hear it, and too much explanation ruins it. But there are subtleties to some forms of humor that boys respond to above others that can be incorporated into fiction. Knowing these elements might help explain what makes many boys – both readers and characters – tick.
Professor Thomas Newkirk at the University of New Hampshire, author of Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture, notes that boy humor consists of two types: physical and verbal. Boys are either saying funny things, or doing funny things. This counters the feeling boys tend to have that school is about reading and writing – fairly static activities – while humor is active, and dynamic, and something seen as generally outside of the classroom.
Boy humor is not cerebral. This is probably the most understood aspect of what boys find funny, because so many books that try to be funny tend toward the cerebral. Especially in YA fiction which has a greater tendency toward the first person point-of-view, this idea that a boy is constantly thinking funny thoughts or coming up with witty comebacks is the most unrealistic form of boy humor. Fictional boys are too clever and witty to be real, and as a result their cerebral humor is annoying to a boy reader.
Parody, on the other hand, becomes a tool boys like to use when they are feeling subordinate. It is a form of catharsis, it is their weapon against the bully and other authority figures that make them feel small and insignificant. It is also a way of maintaining social standing among their peers while at the same time distancing themselves from “sincere” behavior (Wouldn’t want to come off looking sincere in front of our peers, now, would we?). Making fun of others, which is often how parody and satire are viewed, provides an outlet for frustrations while allowing for temporary empowerment sharing.
The longevity of such television shows like The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live and South Park owe a debt to the boys (and boys posing as grown men) that have kept them on the air. As adults we may view these popular shows as juvenile or immature in their humor, but what keeps bringing the boys back is that they take on politics, pop culture, and authority figures, through verbal and physical comedy – occasionally dolloped with a generous helping of bodily functions.
More on those bodily functions in a moment.
Jon Scieszka’s Time Warp Trio features three boys who find themselves learning history the hard way through the aid of a book that transports them into different eras. In Tut, Tut our trio has found themselves in what they presume to be the Tomb of Tutankhamun when they spy a High Priest named Hatsnat brandishing a whip and ordering his ancient Egyptian henchmen around. Like most clichéd villains, the High Priest isn’t beyond monologuing, the fine art of gloating over his evil plans. Here, while the boys attempt to contain themselves, he is trying out the new names he will be called once he assumes the throne.
“Great Hatsnat. Most Awesome Hatsnat. The Wonder of All Hatsnat.” That little bald guy paced around the room, trying out all his different names. Fred, Sam and I bit our lips, trying not to burst out laughing.He walked to the doorway and turned for one last look at the treasure. We were almost safe. Then he said, “The Grand, Glorious Most Awesome Wonder of All… Hatsnat.”
That did it. Fred snorted out a laugh.
Hatsnat jumped three feet in the air.
Sam and I couldn’t hold it in any longer. We fell on the floor laughing. We had just barely managed to stop howling, when Hatsnat held his torch toward us. “Thieves. How dare you defile the temple of Hatsnat.”
Have you ever been someplace where you’re not supposed to laugh, but you just can’t help it? That’s exactly where we were.
“Hot Snot?” I laughed.
“Cold boogers,” laughed Fred.
“Not robbers,” laughed Sam.
We laughed so hard we could hardly breathe.
Hatsnat did not look amused. In fact, he looked mad enough to kill.
Boys are always stepping in it, digging themselves in deeper. They know a pompous authority figure when they see one, and Scieszka knows that the best way to subvert that authority is by giving him a name worthy of ridicule: Hot Snot. As bodily secretions go, mucus is fairly tame, but its enough to set off these boys and heighten the tension of the story at the same time. The fact that their lives are potentially in danger doesn’t make boys any more able to contain themselves, or be any less “boy.”
Scenes like this not only make the characters real, they make the book relevant to the reader’s lives because they can see something of themselves in it. It isn’t just a punchline to a joke or convenient bit of cleverness inserted by the author, it’s a safety zone for feeling something that when blended with humor becomes a release valve for conflicting emotions.
Adult authority figures, naturally, can come under attack, and can be made to bear the brunt of some boyish prankstering. As can the captain of the football team, the local bully, or an antagonistic mean girl. Anyone who assumes a mantle of authority can become a power figure subject to ridicule by a boy.
And it doesn’t have to be deserved ridicule. Conflict with boys often comes from pulling a prank, making a joke, or humiliating someone and having it backfire tremendously. This goes back to the idea that what boys find funny tends to be physical or verbal, perhaps impulsive, and occasionally politically incorrect. The repercussions can be as dangerous or as benign as necessary to the story in question, so long as they remain true to boys. Even the most serious of boy books needs a bit of humor, otherwise, no matter how edgy, gritty, or violent, it just isn’t realistic to a boy reader.
I promise you, if you find a story with a boy protagonist that doesn’t seem to be “working,” where something about the story just doesn’t click, chances are good the author’s inner censor has blinded them to a very real boy lurking in the wings. You know, the one who’s just off to the side setting a paper bag full of dog feces on fire on someone’s porch. And where a book is trying to be funny but it falls flat, see if it isn’t that the humor isn’t too cerebral.
My advice to writers of books with male characters, whether protagonist or supporting – Whenever possible: Make. It. Funny.
Next time we’ll go from one extreme to another and find out what puts that first E in HEAVES…
Those of you who caught my brief appearance in last weeks Twitter chat #genderinYA probably have a pretty good idea what this E stands for, but I trust you’ll be as surprised as I was by what I discovered about this particular element that boys respond to in fiction. Part 3 appears this coming Thursday.