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Humour, between success and misunderstanding

The Original French Version Here


Paul Valéry, quoted in the preface of the Anthology of Black Humour of André Breton, maintains that "the word ‘humour’ is untranslatable. If it wasn't, the French wouldn't use it". In the domain of children's literature, humour does not escape paradoxes either.


The first of these is that it helps sell fiction, but much less picture books, when even picture books said to be ‘humorous’ seem clearly more numerous when one considers the entirety of production for children. Sales figures are in this way incontrovertible, and these past years they have revealed phenomena to us, like that of Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), novels of a free-form humour, the only to dethrone the giants of fantasy. And from Roald Dahl to David Walliams, novels for pre-teen children have always been dominated by humour.


But for picture books, things remain very different, at least in France where the best sales charts generally present in the lead books for 'sitting on the potty'. Can young children really vote as a majority for picture books that require them to go (and not to read) on the potty? Absolutely not. It is indeed the parents who buy their books for young children. And for most of these parents, the literary aspect of the production for youth is eclipsed, in favour of educative objectives. Because buying a picturebook 'to go on the potty' has one aim only: to prepare the child to enter school.


In fact, this prism of parents as necessary buyers of books addressed to the youngest readers could explain this notable difference, in contradiction with the production. Questioned regarding this point, Claudine Desmarteaux, whose humour is practiced with the greatest truthfulness and generally raises some taboos, willingly recognizes that her novels work quite a bit better than her picture books. They actually allow her to be in direct contact with her readers and don’t require the meditation of reading out loud nor purchase by proxy. 


Pity, because when one observes what children really vote for when they are able to make their own choice, for example through surveys conducted by libraries, one finds books that have strong common characteristics attached to humour. These are generally series, in a pocket-size format, very close in nature to comic books.


All the series voted for by children have this exaggerated style in common that makes the link with comic books for children who favor burlesque. And all of them (far from being trifling point) accentuate silliness as a vector for action and humour, whether it be delightfully dramatized or establish itself as a veritable aesthetic of movement and disorder. And it is without a doubt for these reasons that things are 'stuck'. How can parents obsessed with scholastic success and rendering normative their progeny authorize them to read books that stage characters whose actions transgress all interdictions?


To have a sense of humour designates he who produces as well as he who receives. And if adults have - in a general manner - a sense of humour, perhaps they have a little less when it comes to children's books. We are touching upon the syndrome of adults-that-buy-books-for-their-kids. If they themselves are bold in what they read, they are oftentimes much less so when choosing a picture book for their child; if they have courage, they quickly renounce before a book dramatizing monsters; if they have intelligence, they will find any given story overly warped to interest their progeny...


Picture books that foster a shared humour between young children and parents as readers of the book exist and have shown their own potential. It nevertheless remains that they are of subtle mechanics, a complete art of humour presenting a major challenge for the creators and the publishers.

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