What kids really want to read

One thing teachers learn early on in their careers is that no child is alike. Each is an amalgam of different traits, preferences and behaviours.

As a parent of three, it still surprises me to see how different the children are to each other, despite their shared genetics. They eat differently, sleep differently, tantrum differently and cuddle differently.

Despite the differences between children, whether in a classroom or at home, many have one thing in common: their love of humour. This is nowhere more evident than in their choice of books. Whether it is the sarcasm, the silliness, the dry humour or the boldness; some of Australia’s most popular books for children, particularly those of school age, are those which are funny.

Publishers and comedians have been quick to pick up on the popularity of humour for school-aged children. The silly, outlandish hijinks of Andy Griffith and Terry Denton have made the Treehouse series by far Australia’s most popular books for the age group in recent years, selling in their thousands.

Then there are Aaron Blabey’s Bad Guys books, noted by Readings booksellers for their “bold humour and eye-popping, mischievous artwork”, while the antics of the class clown in ‘Funny Kid for President’ has seen the series take up a position in Australia’s bestseller lists.

For a time, humour, silliness, sarcasm and wackiness are some of the chief elements that children are looking for in the books they read, and that is something to celebrate.

It is not just writers who are getting in on the act, but comedians are also increasingly claiming space on bestseller lists. Anh Do’s ‘Spooky Weird! Weirdo: Book 9’ was one of Australia’s bestselling books for children this month, while his picture book, ‘What Do They Do With All the Poo from all of the Animals at the Zoo?’ was a winner in my household, each reading was accompanied by chuckles from my kids.

Further afield, the combination of sarcasm and awkwardness of the Wimpy Kid and the Roald Dahl-esque humour of comedian David Walliams have attracted huge audiences around the world.

This month, Books & Publishing reported that children had voted for their favourite books in state-based ‘children’s choice’ awards. Among the winners were books by comedians Andy Lee and Anh Do, alongside Blabey and Griffiths.

And the list of the books most commonly borrowed from Australian libraries by children up until the age of 12 is illuminating.

  • ‘The 65 Storey Treehouse’ (Andy Griffiths, illustrated by Terry Denton).
  • ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever’ (Jeff Kinney).
  • ‘The 39 Storey Treehouse’
  • ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School’
  • ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul’
  • ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Hard Luck’
  • ‘The 26 Storey Treehouse’
  • ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules’
  • ‘The 52 Storey Treehouse’
  • ‘The 13 Storey Treehouse’

The existence of humorous books for children might not be entirely new, but their dominance seems to be. I rarely remember reading a funny book as a child, more interested in the earnest Famous Five and the Babysitters Club series, in the poignant ‘The Great Gilly Hopkins’ and the tragic ‘Bridge to Terabithia’.

However, Roald Dahl was an earlier writer who had a keen eye for children’s humour, well-loved for his offbeat and non-pc take on childhood. He joked about the smelly and fat, drunken and ugly, and often cast a critical eye on the adults surrounding his young protagonists. More recently, Walliams’ bestselling style of writing has been compared with Dahl’s, not least because both partnered with illustrator Quentin Blake.

Growing up, I remember that Dahl was one of my brother’s favourite writers. While my brother did not particularly like to read, he was drawn to humour in books, choosing to read ‘Elmer Runs Wild’ andThe Secret Diary of Adrian Mole’. I wonder whether, had the number of funny books that exists now been available to him at the time, he would have found reading to be more enticing.

Interestingly, the attraction, or perhaps availability, of funny books falls once readers reach their teenage years, books with more emotional or adventurous themes take over. According to Books and Publishing, the most borrowed books by young adults (aged between 13 and 18) included John Green’s tearjerkers ‘The Fault in our Stars’ and ‘Paper Towns’, two Harry Potter books and a few science-fiction novels.

And, of course, it is not just funny books that children like to read. ‘Mr Huff’ was recently awarded the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Early Childhood ‘Book of the Year’ award. The story is slow and deliberate, a dark cloud following the main character throughout. It is a serious book, with a heaviness at its heart, despite the lightness of its ending. Yet, children adore it, listening over and over.

They also love the rhythm of Mem Fox’s picture books and the fear and apprehension of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ and ‘The Gruffalo’.

Like adults, children’s tastes in books are varied and complex. However, for a time, humour, silliness, sarcasm and wackiness are some of the chief elements that children are looking for in the books they read, and that is something to celebrate.

While their concerns might broaden and their curiosity about the world around them might send them in a different direction as they get older, it is the simple, satisfying joy of laughter that is leading them to books.

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