Honk for Humor

Elizabeth Bluemle -- June 28th, 2011

Here at the Flying Pig, we’re suckers for good writing — and very appreciative of the talent required for good funny writing. When I was in the Vermont College MFA program in writing for children and young adults back in the early aughts, I noticed that a significant majority of awards and scholarships given to students tended to go to the tonally serious works of literary fiction. They were deserving and powerful pieces, to be sure, but my funny comrades’ novels, with words that may have trodden more lightly on the soul but enlivened and enriched their readers equally, were left in the dust. Why was this the case?

It’s no secret that comic novels have had a tendency to be overlooked by big prize committees, in much the same way that Best Picture Academy Awards tend to favor the serious. I think humorous writing has gained more respect in recent years, and most of us understand how difficult it is to do really well. But I wonder if we adult readers and critics still tend to discount or distrust laughter-inducing writing as a literary achievement.

As a child reader, some of the books that spoke most deeply to me had a good deal of humor and/or comedy woven into their souls: Charlotte’s Web, The Trumpet of the Swan, Harriet the Spy, The Little Prince, Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, A Girl Called Al, The Phantom Tollbooth, and so many more. Heck, even the seriously epic Lord of the Rings trilogy is leavened with comic relief and hearty humor. Deep messages may be delivered with a light touch.

It occurred to me that I could do more than simply bemoan the lack of recognition for humorous works. So in 2004, we created the Flying Pig Grade-A, Number-One-Ham Humor Award, or FPGANOH-HA! (In case you’re curious, this acronym is pronounced EFF-pah-gah-no-HA! and is a great deal of fun to say with gusto. Try it.) The monetary prize — currently $735 — is given to the best submitted humorous piece in any genre by unpublished Vermont College MFA students in the Writing for Children and Young Adults program.  For the first several years, we limited the competition to first- and second-semester students. There were few awards and scholarships open to them and we felt they would most benefit from early encouragement. But it’s a small student body, and for the last couple of years, we’ve opened to the entire student body. They must still be unpublished, however. Aspiring authors need as much reinforcement as they can get; those pre-publication waters are tricky to swim. (Post-publication waters are tricky, too, but in totally different ways. Ah, commerce. However, I digress.)

What this means for us is that every spring, Josie and I get a thick pile of anonymous manuscripts (or an email full of pdfs) to read, and it’s SO MUCH FUN to read and discuss them, and wrestle with the final decision. That is the situation we face at this very moment—with a particularly good set of submissions!—and the reason I am ending this blog post in a moment. We have a final decision to make. Wish us luck; it’s a toughie.

Do you think funny books are overlooked by award committees?

In praise of all books humorous and rich, I would like to invite you to share your favorite funny 2011 titles. Perhaps one of them was even written by a former FPGANOH-HA! winner.

17 thoughts on “Honk for Humor

  1. betty tisel

    my 14 year old’s favorite funny books: the Skulduggery Pleasant series. She laughs and laughs when she reads them.

  2. Ann Jacobus

    If there’s anything the world needs, it’s more laughter! I think your award is wonderful, hope more people will follow suit and regret that I had nothing funny to submit when I was a student at VCFA. I completely agree that humor in both literature and film tends to be dismissed as “not-serious” and is therefore often overlooked by award committees. I recently wrote a blog on this subject called 11 Funny Things About Humor and How It Can Save the World. http://www.annjacobus.com/blog/2011/3/3/11-funny-things-about-humor-and-how-it-can-save-the-world.html

  3. Stephanie Greene

    I’m going to print this out and send it to my mother, Constance Greene, who’ll be delighted to see “A Girl Called Al” on your list. There are as many kinds of funny books as there are dramatic ones, and some types of humor are easier to write than others. But writing “funny” is hard.

    Good for you for drawing attention to good funny books.

    1. Erica Perl

      Wow! Please tell your mother that she is one of my favorite writers ever! I was just interviewed by Read Kiddo Read for my new middle grade novel, When Life Gives You O.J., and I cited her as one of my all-time faves. I loved A Girl Called Al and its sequels when I was a kid (and I still do… they’ve totally influenced my writing).

      All best wishes,

      Erica S. Perl (erica at ericaperl.com)

    2. Carin Siegfried

      I adored all the Al books as a kid! Such a bummer that they’re OP. Tell your mother that I love her books too! I keep an eye out for them at used bookstores and really regret that my original copies are long gone. They should be reissued.

      1. Stephanie Greene

        Ah, now, that would be music to my mother’s ears, Carin. Actually, I think the first Al is still in print, as is Beat the Turtle Drum. But the others, not. It’s great to hear she still has fans.

  4. Sarah Lamstein

    What a wonderfully generous thing for you guys to do, Elizabeth! Humor in literature is precious. I’m particularly fond of Polly Horvath. Carolyn Coman’s Big House and it’s sequel Sneaking Suspicions are wickedly dry. Let’s not forget the big guy – Mark Twain – a model for us all.

  5. Alexis O'Neill

    Elizabeth – Many honks from me for establishing your Flying Pig Grade-A, Number-One-Ham Humor Award for Vermont College MFA students. In 2003, SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) also recognized the need to spotlight novelists who are terrific at writing “funny” and established the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. The first award went to Sid Fleischman, of course. But other winners include Lisa Yee (Millicent Min, Girl Genius), Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Does My Shirts), David LaRochelle (Absolutely Positively Not), Sara Pennypacker (Clementine), Donna Gephart (As If Being 12 ¾ Isn’t Bad Enough My Mother is Running for President) and Allen Zadoff (Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have). So let’s hear it for having the skill to make readers laugh out loud!

  6. Val Howlett

    Hi there! I am a VCFA student, and while I myself haven’t churned out something laugh-out-loud enough to submit to your contest, I just wanted to say that I’m really glad it exists. So rarely does humor actually get recognized or awarded. I do have a few friends who submitted to it; I’d say they’re pretty thrilled as well. So thank you!

    I’m also really curious about how you judge the pieces. I imagine gut reaction is a pretty key factor when it comes to humor, but do you analyze the pieces? Count the laugh-out-loud moments? Look for some sort of humorous consistency? Maybe part of the reason why humor is little-recognized is because it’s so very subjective.

  7. Randi

    Great literature has a range of emotions. To craft a good novel, you need a little of everything: drama, humor, sadness, triumph, etc. One of my favorite examples of this is how J.K. Rowling uses humor to make a tense situation funny. When Harry and Ron are caught by Devil’s Snare and Hermione laments the lack of fire, Ron yells (in his usual outraged yet humorous way): “Are you a witch or not?!” Great moment, and I laugh out loud every time I read it. And don’t forget the humor in nonfiction, too. I’ve seen children’s authors make what could otherwise be a dry subject compelling thanks to a humorous tone or funny observations about the subject, etc. Humor isn’t simply for fiction–it’s a great literary device in nonfiction, too!

  8. Kevin A. Lewis

    This dovetails nicely with Ms. Gurdon’s latest piece about the gloomy PC self-righteousness of the YA field; unfortunately, humor is considered to be a dangerous controlled substance kids need to be protected against by all too many agents and editors. After awhile, most writers who want to make a sale learn not to offer them any….

  9. Dawn Huston

    Shakespeare has funny bits even in Hamlet…I’m sure in Othello and MacBeth as well ‘tho I can’t remember them. I still remember a book that used to make me cackle as early (read in 1970’s, probably written before that) conservationist children tried to help their uncle catch poachers: one complained the bumpy fast jeep chase was going to make her wet her pants (I wish I could remember the title or author…)

  10. John Duncklee

    Satire seems to baffle some. A year ago I submitted “Brokeback Foothill” to the Western Writers of America Spur Award committee. The story is about Wyatt Earp and “Doc” Holiday as gay lovers. I received an email from one of the committee members asking if “Brokeback Foothill” was fiction or non-fiction. Needless to say the laughter I have enjoyed since was worth the trouble of submitting the satire.

  11. John Duncklee

    Satire seems to baffle some. A year ago I submitted “Brokeback Foothill” to the Western Writers of America Spur Award committee. The story is about Wyatt Earp and “Doc” Holiday as gay lovers. I received sn email from one of the committee members asking if “Brokeback Foothill” was fiction or non-fiction. Needless to say the laughter I have enjoyed since was worth the trouble of submitting the satire.

  12. Kitti

    I love this! And I’m going to spend the rest of the day muttering “EFF-pah-gah-no-HA!” under my breath and giggling. 🙂

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