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Publishing U: Writing Humor for Middle-Graders

Publishing UOur readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In this week’s Publishing U master class, Gordon Korman (Criminal Destiny, 2016; Slacker, 2016), an author whose many middle-grade novels have consistently tickled the funny bones of his constituents, explains how imagining his readers, and meeting them, keeps his comedy honest.


Gordon KormanI have an imaginary friend watching me when I write humor for middle graders—more like an imaginary heckler, actually. Usually a boy, but not always. He—or she—has a short upper body, but long legs, crossed at the ankles. Since the two halves are separated by the desktop, they seem to belong to two different people. The arms are crossed in a gesture of defiance, the lower lip is curled back 180 degrees. The facial expression belongs to someone who smells something not horrible, yet slightly off, in the room. The nonverbal message is basically: “All right, make me laugh.” My imaginary friend is pretty sure I’m not up to the job.

The point isn’t to create a stereotype of a certain kind of reader. The purpose of these imaginary friends is to keep me honest. There are a lot of them out there. And their reaction to my work—even if I’m guessing at it—carries a lot of weight. You can win a Newbery without them, and they’re by no means a prerequisite for a starred review. But if you want to write humor that reaches a truly broad audience, you need this silent army of reluctant readers and can-read-but-won’ts on your side.

When it comes to getting an honest opinion,
I don’t have to worry about middle-graders.
I usually end up with more honesty than
I know what to do with.

I’ve tried many different styles in a 40-year career, but humor will always be my true love. My first book was written when I was 12, as a seventh-grade language-arts assignment for a track-and-field coach who had to cover an English class. Having never taught creative writing before, he gave us carte blanche to work on whatever we wanted from mid-February through the end of the year in June. He called it writing a novel, and while none of us took him very seriously, that’s exactly how it worked out for me. Classmates read my project and loved it. “This is as good as anything they’ve got down in the library,” said one. I still consider that the greatest review I’ve ever received.

Slacker by Gordon KormanAs a seventh-grader, I wasn’t exactly a member of the silent army. I was a good reader, but I was also somewhat disgruntled and very hard to please. The books I loved best—also, come to think of it, the TV shows, movies, and just about everything else—were funny. I find it utterly baffling that humor isn’t a larger part of a child’s education. Consider your adult life. Which do you use more often: your sense of humor, or your ability to recognize foreshadowing? Now look at the curriculum in your school district: lots of foreshadowing, plenty of iambic pentameter. Humor? Not so much.

It’s weird that we teach every skill under the sun, yet many educators and librarians act as if a sense of humor is something you have to be born with, period. You hear it around the coffee pot in every middle-school faculty room: “The jokes are passing miles over their heads,” or “My kids are way too literal to understand that kind of humor.” Well, they didn’t understand how to diagram sentences either until someone showed them how to do it! I didn’t laugh at Seinfeld or Monty Python’s Flying Circus the first time I saw those shows.

A sense of humor is like a muscle. It develops through use. Look at the most popular novels studied in middle-grade classrooms. I’ll bet the total number of funny books is less than the number that contain a single, relatively narrow plot point: a beloved dog dies. Think about that—we are sending kids to high school who, in their literary experience, have attended canine funerals more often than they have laughed. (This was the inspiration for my 2001 novel, No More Dead Dogs. My imaginary friends may not always be the subtlest thinkers, but when they see the book cover with the award sticker and the golden retriever, it doesn’t take them very long to figure out that the dog is going down.)

No More Dead Dogs by Gordon KormanI still do a lot school visits. It’s the only surefire way to reach the silent army. At public appearances, you can’t ever be certain they’ll show up. That’s what makes them a silent army—they’re the opposite of tastemakers, who are a smaller group with outsize influence. Reluctant readers and can-read-but-won’ts generally don’t turn out at the events where their opinions are likely to be counted. They do purchase books, but they tend to get them from sources under the radar of the prestigious best-seller lists. At school visits, though, I read them loud and clear. I hear what gets the big laugh, the introspective chuckle, and “You think that’s funny? That makes one of us.” When it comes to getting an honest opinion, I don’t have to worry about middle-graders. I usually end up with more honesty than I know what to do with.

In Aristotle’s Poetics (okay, full disclosure, the CliffsNotes to the Poetics; that’s the kind of student I was in college) the great philosopher writes that, of the two forms of drama, comedy and tragedy, comedy is the lower art form. I still blame Aristotle every year during the Academy Awards, when the funny movie doesn’t win the Oscar.

Well, with respect to writing for middle graders at least, Aristotle was wrong. And I’ve got a whole silent army of friends—not imaginary ones, either—who are willing to back me up.




About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Phantom Tower (2018). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

1 Comment on "Publishing U: Writing Humor for Middle-Graders"

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  1. Ms. Yingling says:

    This is brilliant and should be required reading by all aspiring middle grade authors. That “imaginary heckler”? I see students like that all day long in the library. That’s exactly the expression and attitude I see, so being able to hand them amusing books is crucial to getting them to read!

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