Category Archives: Humor

Making Hard Choices

My name is Daniel Kenney, I write books for kids, and this is my first post for Emblazoners, this awesome group of writers I’ve been so fortunate to recently join.

Since I started publishing kid’s books last September, this is as good a time as any to share with you what I’ve learned over the last year. But before I share with you what I’ve learned, I thought I’d share with you what I’ve done.

Since last September, I have published eleven books for kids. That’s right. ELEVEN. Here they are (just to give you an idea of the kinds of stuff I write)

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For some writers, this isn’t that much…but for many, eleven is a lot.  And so far, things have gone really well. My books mostly sell, I’m able to make extra money for our family and everything is hunky dory…right?

Well, not exactly. Let me tell you a little more about myself and then you’ll see why. Along with writing kids books, I am a stay at home dad of eight. That’s right. EIGHT. I have eight crazy, loud, and mostly fun kids.

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These may not be my actual kids but this is a fairly close approximation of what our house looks like on a daily basis.

You see, my wife works outside the home. I take care of the kids, get them to school, bus them from practice to practice, clean the house, cook the meals. You get the deal. And inevitably, whenever I post a new book on Facebook I get some comment like….”Dan, how on earth do you get so much done AND be a stay at home dad of EIGHT KIDS?”

For awhile you can delude yourself into thinking that you’re some kind of super genius wonderkind. Or, at least that’s what I did…at least a little. But that’s not the truth. The truth is something that became very apparent in the last month. The truth is…the reason I’ve been able to get so much writing and publishing done over the last year is because I just haven’t done a very good job at doing the DAD stuff.

Now, before you go with the whole “Don’t be too hard on yourself” I’ll just say up front that I’m not being too hard on myself. The truth is, I am not a person who can do everything. I am not a person who can survive on 4 hours of sleep. I’m not particularly good at getting lots of different things done and doing them quickly. So for me to pull off what I’ve pulled off over the last year has meant that I have had to take valuable DAD time to be a writer.

So what does this have to do with writing and why am I blogging about this? Very simply because I’m also not one of those people who believes you can really have it all. Choices must be made. Time has to be carved out of something else. Something will suffer. And, each of us has to decide what we are willing to let suffer. For me, the path I took over the last year is not particularly sustainable for me. So I need to find a new path that WILL be sustainable…for me…and my wife…and our kids. Our family. Long term, this whole writing thing can’t be just about me. It’s got to work for us.

So, in year TWO of this publishing journey, I’ll be trying to carve out a new path, one that lends itself to a healthier and happier path for my entire family. For example, as I write this blog, I’m in the lobby of a gym while my 2 youngest are in the daycare twenty feet away. I’m using my workout time to write this blog post. Then, I’ve got to grab the kids, get an electronic game fixed, bake a cake, feed the boys lunch, get them down for lunch, clean the house, pick up the kids from school, drive one daughter to soccer, take my son and two friends swimming for my son’s birthday (which by the way is today, HAPPY TENTH BIRTHDAY BRENDAN!), then I’ve got to race them home, cook them dinner, have a party, get the friends home, make sure everybody’s done homework., pray our family rosary and….well, you get the point. THAT…that truly is my life and at least for awhile longer, the writing will have to fit into my life…as opposed to my life fitting into my writing.

It’s so great to be a part of this community and a pleasure to get to know you all.  Happy Writing!  Daniel

Daniel Kenney is the author of the popular THE MATH INSPECTORS series along with the hilarious graphic novel, THE BIG LIFE OF REMI MULDOON. He and his wife Teresa live in tropical Omaha, Nebraska where they raise eight children, one gecko, and two rather unhappy toads. Find out more at www.DanielKenney.com or see all of his books by searching for Daniel Kenney on Amazon.com.

Me Write Funny One Day, Part 1: So Long and Thanks For All the Frogs

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Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.  –E.B. White

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 So . . . let’s kill some frogs, shall we?

In my last post I explored the phenomenon of the reluctant reader, concluding that both graphic novel formats and humor can be key to ditching the X Box in favor of a book.  Not every writer can whip out a graphic novel, but most of us can make our writing funnier.  In the next two posts, I’ll talk about what makes writing funny, how to get more (but not too much) funny into your writing, and how to identify books for middle grade readers that don’t equate funny with the words “fart” and “butt.”   (Am I right, weary parent?)

 It’s All About That Layering  

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, good humorous fiction is a chuckle wrapped in a guffaw inside a knowing smile.  By that I mean that, while Meghan Trainor may be all about that bass, true humorous fiction is all about that layering. Some jokes take a full chapter to develop, some take several chapters, and some even take the whole book.  In this post we’ll focus on the simplest layer, the thin veneer, if you will, of humor: the famous (and infamous) one-liner.

Did you hear the one about the one-liner?  (. . . it felt all a-groan)

One-liners are quick, one-dimensional jokes most anyone can write now and then.  Part of the reason they are so easy to write is that there are a myriad of forms to choose from. Here are some common categories along with examples from my novels Kibble Talk and Dog Goner (from my ongoing Kibble Talk series).

 1. EXAGGERATION.        Zach is so thin and bony he could hoola hoop with a Cheerio.

 I do a lot of exaggerating in my novels and it can be a blast to write—I just let my mind spiral out in ever more ridiculous circles until I hit the right image.  But two caveats.

First, it is easy to be overly cruel.  If you are writing for children, a little wincing on the part of your readers is okay as long as it’s only a tiny little wince and it’s accompanied by a chuckle.  If you’re writing for adults, you can go for the gut punch, but again, there must be a correspondingly impactful laugh.

Second, if you are writing in first person dialogue, make sure your language conforms to the way your character (in terms of age, education, etc.) would speak and think about the world.  In the example above, a nine year old is describing her best friend’s super skinny older brother. Your average nine year old is familiar with both hoola hooping and Cheerios cereal. On the other hand, your average nine-year-old would not be so familiar (one hopes) with someone being so skinny he could fit into the barrel of a 9-gage shotgun.

Here’s a few more examples of exaggeration from my writing:

  • His face was kind of pointy, with eyes so small it looked like they might disappear the next time he blinked.
  • That lady could talk the ears off a field of corn.
  • Dinky prancing is worse than a hip-hopping hippo.

2. SURPRISE:        “I am a humble man and I will shout that from the mountaintops,” Mr. Higginbotham said.

Here the reader anticipates that the last half of the sentence will reinforce the message given in the first half, but instead, it entirely contradicts it. This type of one-liner is perfect for delineating a ridiculous character—one who, like Mr. Higginbotham, is oblivious to his own contradictions.  It is funny to your audience because they do see the contradiction.

3. Set up a funny visual. (Here Tawny is describing her dog to us for the very first time.  The actual one-liner is the last sentence, but you need the lead-up for it to make sense.)

Dinky is huge. He is a Great Dane and an especially great one at that. He weighs more than my dad and is taller than my dad when they are both down on all fours. His undersides are the color of whipped cream, his back, legs and head are caramel, and his face and ears are chocolate brown.  I like to think he’s the world’s largest ice cream sundae! 

 I like this visual in particular because it explains a great deal more than just Dinky’s size and coloring.  Without her coming out and telling us, it provides an immediate sense of Tawny’s feelings for her dog.  Using those same exact colors, she could have compared him to a military tank in desert camouflage.  Instead, he is every child’s dream—an enormous sweet treat.

4. PHRASE TWIST:  Jenny has a way with words, and by that I mean that when she is using words, people get out of her way.

I use this style of one-liner the least in my fiction because a) the jokes tend to be formulaic and can come off as wooden, and b) your audience must be familiar with the original phrase and I can’t be as sure of that with children.  But if cleverly done, they are very memorable because the reader already knows the original line.

5. BODY HUMOR:

This isn’t so much a category as a caveat. In all of these one-liner formats, body humor is always an option.  Both kids and adults (you know who you are!) DO think butts and farts are funny. But if you want your books to be enjoyed by all ages, as I do, you will want to limit them. The Kibble Talk series is certainly not immune to body part and body effluence jokes. After all, these are talking dog books, and dogs aren’t exactly shy about their bodies.  But I use them sparingly, and to even things out, I add in plenty of one-liners that only adult readers are likely to get, such as a math teacher talking about the finer points of isosceles triangles, how table manners are genetically determined, and even references to The Fonz and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Rotten Tomato Blaster is No Laughing Matter

The challenge when it comes to one-liners is not in the writing, but in deciding where, when, and how much to use them. The well-placed one liner in an otherwise serious book (mystery, crime, romance, etc.) will endear your readers to you, especially when it arrives like a lifeline just after an emotionally fraught moment. But what do you do when your whole genre is humor?  One thing you don’t do is rely so heavily on one-liners that they are essentially the only layer of humor in the book.

Sadly, I see this most often in children’s humorous fiction. Wanting to please her audience, the writer thinks to herself: “Children, and especially boys, like jokes, so all I need to do is write a lot of them and they will love my books.”  Sigh.

frog not amused

When that happens, the book becomes a series of throwaway lines and personal slams drowning in a soup of endless whining and negativity, very much like this sentence. The first few quips may be entertaining, but after a short while of having to react to them over and over again, the reader feels as if he or she is in a batting cage at the receiving end of a pitching machine well stocked with rotten tomatoes. Splat! Splat! Make it stop!  Splat!

Of course, the real problem is that with so much of the page (and so much of the writer’s mental energy) devoted to the next one-liner, there’s little room left for character development and storyline.

By all means use one-liners, but make them an occasional treat, not the main course. For true humorous fiction—satisfying humorous fiction—the funny must go wider and deeper.

The House That Funny Built

Stay tuned for my next Emblazoners post, Me Write Funny One Day Part 2, where I will share my methods for doing just that. I’ll be pulling examples from two of my favorite series (Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones and Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) as well as more from my Kibble Talk series, so it wouldn’t be the worst idea ever to rush out and read all those tomorrow, now, would it?  Just sayin. And if you can find a young person to read them with, all the better—cause just like hugs, funny is best when shared.

No frogs were harmed

How do YOU funny?
If you’re a writer, how much emphasis do you put on humor? Where do you usually use it?  If you’re a parent, how much does humor seem to matter to your young reader(s)?

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Targeting The Reluctant Reader

Dear Children’s Author,

Please write for the kid who would rather trim her toenails for the third time than open a book.  Please write books that are better than video games and snow days and pizza. Please write books that make you feel as good as when your brother admits that you will always be better than him at video games and snow days and pizza.

reluctant reader

A daunting request, but think about it: if you can hook reluctant readers, you’re pretty much guaranteed that the avid ones will be gaga over them. It’s kind of like broccoli.  Find a recipe to please the most finicky eater, and you’ve found your family’s new go-to dish.

I HATE reading

A reluctant reader is anyone who does not show a natural interest in reading.   This definition is very broad, encompassing children with learning disabilities and visual or psychomotor issues. But even when medical and development issues are absent, a child may still treat reading like a chore, and I would know.  Though we read equal numbers of books together, I have one child who did and one who did not experience an early love of reading. For the latter, just about any other activity brought her more pleasure, including staring at a television screen that I had turned off over an hour previously.

A Picture Leads to a Thousand Words

With my reluctant reader, the key to getting her into reading, the gateway drug, so to speak, of literature, was Graphic Novels.  The books she initially chose were glorified picture books – goofy, simple drawings with fewer than 20 words to a page – and even then I wasn’t entirely sure she was reading any of the words.  I did not care.  She was holding a book in her hands willingly. She was taking them to bed at night and then propping them up against the cereal box in the morning.  She was letting me know when it was time to go back to the library.  She even wanted to read parts to me. And whether or not I found them entertaining, I pretended to be enthralled.

Josie graphic novel faves

Slowly, over several years, she increased both her reading speed and her word to page ratio.  By the time she was paging backwards through manga graphic novels as thick as bricks, she was devouring them the way I polish off a bag of potato chips – I mean carrot sticks.  Today she is starting the third in the Fablehaven series.

After looking into the subject, I suspect the drawings in the graphic novels solved a problem many Reading Specialists identify among reluctant readers: connecting text to meaning.  Simply put, some children experience reading as an exercise in tracking words on a page, aka DRUDGERY. The drawings helped her to make the connection between the words and the story because, while she might get the general gist of the story just by looking at the pictures, bothering to read even a smattering of words made the pictures more alive.  The more she read, the more alive it became. Ta daaa!  Reading!

For many children this process happens during the traditional picture book years, but my child needed an extension.  She needed a way to be “held back” to picture book and early reader level without feeling punished or embarrassed by plots like “the puppy played in the mud and needed a bath.”  And though I’ve never personally been a fan of Graphic Novels, for giving my daughter this second chance, I have undying respect and gratitude toward the genre.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way Home From The Library

But wait, you say: I don’t write Graphic Novels!  That’s okay, because pictures aren’t the only prerequisite to keeping my daughter reading.  As I peruse her library check-out history, there is an obvious second theme: humor.  Without something to tickle her funny bone, it doesn’t matter how thrilling a story is, my daughter will likely find it dull.

So as I write my Kibble Talk series, I work carefully on the humor. I’ll save a discussion of HOW to write funny for my next Emblazoner’s post, but it all pays off when you get reviews and comments like these from teachers and parents:

I think teachers might use this book with reluctant readers.”

And even better:

My daughter has some dyslexia and dislikes reading, but she has read Kibble Talk at least a dozen times.”

And best of all:

I bought this book for my 12 year old granddaughter who hasn’t read a book, other than what she had to at school, since she got her ipad at Christmas. All she ever wants to do is play games. But when she started reading Kibble Talk, she didn’t put it down until she finished it. Please keep writing, Cynthia, our kids need you.”

And THAT is the sort of review that keeps an author sitting at her keyboard even when her toenails could really use a third trimming.

Cynthia Port is the author of the ongoing Kibble Talk series, written for middle graders and the perpetually young at heart.Bio pic white background

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