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Editorial: The Little Old Lady from Boston Meets Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang

What can I say? When we were planning our annual special issue and decided on the topic of humor, it was last summer, and everyone was feeling very optimistic. Now I suppose we can only hope, as the old saying goes (and as Lisa Yee reminds us), that comedy is tragedy plus time, as I for one could use a laugh.

“Write something funny. People always enjoy reading something that makes them laugh.” Yes, Beverly Cleary’s mother, they do. But funny books face an uphill battle to be taken seriously, a funny paradox in itself. Remember, Beverly Cleary herself did not win a Newbery Medal until she wrote a book that was (for her) weighty and serious, Dear Mr. Henshaw. In library school in the 1980s we talked a lot about why children read (recreationally, anyway), and while experience would go on to show me that children most often asked for “scary books” or “funny books,” at that time there was still in our profession a belief that young readers needed to be led “up the reading ladder” from cheap thrills to aesthetic appreciation. The real reader, Zena Sutherland maintained, read for literary style. Thus, no Mad magazine; no Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew; no comic books. (Shades of the dangers promulgated by Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang that Professor Harold Hill direly warned of in The Music Man.) Although librarianship was changing even then, it remained the case that if you were to have, say, joke books in the library, it was only to serve the purpose of the bait-and-switch, luring children who had dubious and lurid tastes into, eventually, eagerly placing their names in the reserve queue for the latest prizewinner.

It’s not like I think there’s nothing to this. A British headmaster recently made the news for ridding his classroom libraries of the Artemis Fowl series and other popular favorites and replacing them with what he saw as better books, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Potter (Mr. Halls may be an elitist, but he isn’t stuffy). Good for him, kind of? He admitted that the experiment wasn’t meeting with the success he would have liked; my unsolicited advice would be that keeping Artemis Fowl et al. might have given him better results. When readers see their friends on a shelf, they are more likely to check out those books’ companions. Proximity is everything, as my husband the Realtor will tell you.

But I also think Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets intrinsically deserves its own place in a library, and I bet you think so, too. Some of you. Not because it will lead kids to a better class of books about toilets (although Elissa Gershowitz and Kitty Flynn offer some suggestions starting on page 62), but because George and Harold and their BVD-clad superhero have earned a place in readers’ hearts. Humor promotes community. When we hear a joke, the experience doesn’t seem complete until we tell it to someone else. Thus do jokes become shared experience and memory, whether culture-wide (“I’ll have what she’s having”), within a particular group (“It’s a bunny-eat-bunny world”), or private (only my friend Elizabeth and I know what we mean by “Dorothy Kilgallen”). Humor can reinforce solidarity among the powerful, of course, but it is a useful tool in the hands of the oppressed, too. When some of our contributors to this issue asked if they were allowed to joke about our current president, I said…well, go see for yourself.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. I agree that Captain Underpants deserves its place on the shelf. I also think that readers should be led “up the ladder.” I just read Robin Smith’s essay “Teaching New Readers to Love Books” and I think the whole reason to lead readers up the ladder is so they can enjoy more and more books.

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