Girls Are Funny (Period).

funny girls coverWay, way back when my daughter was in third grade (she’s in 6th now), she got to choose who she wanted to be in the Wax Museum. It was a biography unit—they were to research people in their library period, choose someone whose life or story inspired them, learn all there is to know, write a speech, and then become them in the actually living wax museum. Needless to say, I loved this project so much I wrote an entire book about it.

Historical figures! Athletes! Explorers! Writers! Dress-up! What’s not to love?

At the time, my daughter had been struggling a little and the only thing that distracted her from her worries was comedy. She was strangely drawn to “Wizards of Waverly Place” reruns and specifically, Selena Gomez’s antics as Alex, who was always getting herself into wildly sticky and hilarious situations. Yes, it’s true. That show was HILARIOUS. Full disclosure: long before I got to write my own books, I collected paychecks for writing tie-in books for Disney, which meant novelizing their hit shows. Therefore I have seen my fair share of WOWP and I’m here to tell you Selena Gomez is no lightweight in the comedy department. In fact, she reminded me a little of Lucille Ball, which worried me a great, great deal.

How would my kid ever know that before Alex and the Chocolate Fountain, there was Lucy and the Candy Factory? How?!

Since we were heading out on a vacation, I quickly downloaded some of the best episodes of “I Love Lucy” and handed her a fully loaded computer for the airplane ride. What ensued was one of the most joyous moments of parenting ever, ever. I watched as my daughter tried to stifle her snorts and belly laughs so that no one else on the plane would notice. As Lucy got half in the bag on the stuff of Vitameatavegamin, my daughter got drunk on the fun of watching it. Soon, the whole plane was laughing at this super modern kid watching an old-fashioned comic genius at work. It was—okaaay, Selena—it was magic.

Which is why I cannot wait to hand her Funny Girl, a new book that collects the wisdom and comic stylings of some of the best writers for kids, into a nifty package ripe for gift giving. Edited by the one and only Betsy Bird, the book includes so many different takes on seemingly similar girl experiences, you will truly get something new out of it with each quick flick of the page. I’ve loved the idea of this book since I first heard about it, and it does not disappoint. We here are a funny household. We distract from bad days and homework frustration with sarcasm and pratfalls. I maybe even minimize a bit by invoking comedy when I’m afraid things have gotten too serious. (I know. I’m working on this.)

But this book, from the word go, gets everything exactly right. The very first piece is called, “How to Tell a Joke.” So right off the bat, we know this is a practical guide. “How to Tell a Joke When Dealing with a Bully”? Yes please! This is kind of how I go about parenting so having that backed up in an actual book, having a tangible parenting guide (basically) to hand over to my daughter and her friends, that isn’t a collection of how to properly spit your food into a napkin, or how to bait a fishing hook (useful, but still), or okay, how to apply lip gloss like a boss, is JUST. SO. EXCITING.

From the how-to opener to the “Dear Grandpa: Give Me Money” bit by Alison De Camp, which could have been written between my own kid and her Law-and-Order-loving grandmother, the book is mesmerizing in its collective weirdness, its irreverence, and its heart. There are comics from Raina Telgemeier and Cece Bell and let’s just pause for moment on Kelly DiPucchio’s chapter, “Things Could Be Verse,” which, really is like reading the very best of Shel Silverstein, only with a splash of feminism and some pretty spot on puberty-normalizing wit. Yeah, that’s a thing. I just made it so. It’s AMAZING. Read it. Go.

There are SO MANY things to talk about here but one of my favorites is Mitali Perkins’ “The Brown Girl Pop Quiz: All of the Above,” which digs deep into the white-questions-about-brown-experiences scenario along with a practical multiple choice quiz that is super funny and super empowering, turning the tables once again with a generous and necessary amount of snark. It is so smart. Another favorite is Libba Bray’s Public Service Announcement about period protocol in middle school. I mean, WHERE WAS THIS WHEN I NEEDED IT? In addition to examining the connection between glitter unicorn greeting cards and getting your period for the first time (spoiler: the glitter unicorn is NOT a period mascot), it offers practical advice for what to do if you bleed through your jeans, for example, stripping the moment of its traditional horror and turning it into, you guessed it…comedy. There’s more and I more I could tell you about, because it’s all so good, but here’s the main thing: this book has miles-deep respect for the girls who are reading it and I think, more than anything, that is why I love it so.

So yep, my kid chose Lucille Ball for the Wax Museum and yes she pulled off the red wig in a sweat-induced panic attack moment during her presentation and yes, that made it even funnier because being funny is a special power. It can be a shield, it can be a weapon and it can be a truth serum when everything else in life feels false. Used strategically, it can even make people listen to some important things they might not want to hear and between you and me, these girls (and probably your girl) have some important stuff worth getting to. Final takeaways here: sometimes humor is the way out. Don’t be afraid to laugh with your kids when life gets messy. It will teach them to laugh at the messes, and THIS IS A GIFT. Second, let them talk openly about their weird sh*t. All of it. ENCOURAGE them to give you their take. Some of it might be rough, some of it will be awesome, and if you are able to catch the light before it gets too dark, a lot of it will be funny.

Just okay, just get the book.

Whatever would they do without us? (More than you might think!)

A friend recently told me that she went to a bookstore looking for something new to read to her daughter. The bookseller made some age-appropriate suggestions, like –(and I know I write this a lot—it’s an epidemic)—Rainbow Fairies. My friend was not so impressed and pushed back. How about The Boxcar Children?  She wondered out loud.

The bookseller shook her head no. “Those kids have no parents.”

Though I was the very person who made this recommendation to my friend, I tried not to take personal offense to this reaction. Why did I think this book was okay and this trustworthy bookseller did not? Was it my own nostalgia for The Boxcar Children? Definitely. But it was something else, too. Yes these kids have no parents and yes that is disturbing and complicated…to us, the parents. It isn’t all that disturbing to kids. And I think I know why.

The same way we’re okay with Sam Gribley running away from home and living in a tree, or Claudia and Jamie Kincaid running away to the Met and making a home for themselves in the musty velvet of an antique bed. Kids are not so concerned with the Amber Alert of it all. What they care about is how those kids survive, how they make it out there in the wild world all on their own. Not a grown-up in sight.

Just yesterday I tested my own child. We were in a shopping center parking lot and I said, “pretend I’m not here, how would you get to the car safely?” She got a wide, serious smile on her face, let go of my hand, looked both ways and hustled to the car –very carefully. More carefully than if I had been holding her hand tight, tugging her along while she daydreamed about the row of colorful jeans we had just left behind. She was more careful because she had to be. And I was relieved. I had not sheltered her into oblivion, she had gotten to the car.

I do this a lot. When my kids watched Home Alone, I asked them if they thought they could get to the supermarket for milk (or, let’s be honest, a big old box of Frosted Flakes) in my absence.  Both of them mapped out all of the logistics, and eventually thought that yes they could. And again, I was relieved. The beauty of a book like The Boxcar Children is the voyeurism of it. Kids get to look inside the lives of kids who—either by circumstance or daring-do—are alone and have to eat, and stay warm, and stay safe, and take care of siblings, and make money, and the list goes on and on.

These stories are spectacular for showing us how kids might go about surviving outside of the watchful eye and grasp of their parents. How they might secure a commuter rail train pass from their parents’ waste basket, how they might give up their weekly ice cream sundae bought and paid for out of their very own allowance so they might save enough to eat on the mean streets of New York City. These authors are showing us resourcefulness at play, and extraordinary resilience, and I thank them for this.

Because in an age when we are all a tight hand-hold away from our kids—or maybe a text, or a facetime call away, we kind of need someone to expose them to a world without parents so that they at least pause to wonder if they themselves would know to make an abandoned boxcar into a shelter should they come upon one.

I, for one, loved the escape of these books and wasn’t at all fearful of them. Thankfully, my daughter feels the same way, and thankfully, when she did get to the car on her own, she turned to me with pride and relief and said, “can you go back to being here now?”

Far too many to list, but here is a selected list:

For early to middle graders (K-4):

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Grades 3-6:

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

And for ages 8 to 80…(we all might as well get a skill set, just in case):

The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Igguidan and Hal Igguidan

The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz

What is it about tin-can stilts?

ramona father

 

I recently read my very own childhood copy of Ramona and Her Father with my 7 year old daughter only to find out why–of all the books I could have kept, all those Sweet Valley Highs, the Judy Blumes, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit–why oh why I had let those paperbacks go and held on to this one?  Held on tight, through a tween bedroom renovation, a dismissive move to college, the sale of my childhood home, an event equal in my mind to a house fire burning to a crisp my most prized possessions, stealing from me my cheerleading jacket, my Michael Jackson Human Nature poster, the unsavory letters from some unsavory guy I met at the mall movie theater. So, maybe not all of those things were worth saving. But why did I take Ramona and Her Father when I can hardly remember reading it in the first place?

Was it that the writing is pitch-perfect? No. I mean it is pitch-perfect and the tone is special and the voice-ah! I can hear this child better than I can hear my own, I swear. But that is not why I kept it. It took me a while to find out why because my 7 year old will often interrupt a week of perfectly good and bonding bedtime reading with a few Rainbow Fairies books and the occasional Archie comic. So it took. a. while. But then just when I started to wonder how I ever had the attention span for Cleary’s unique narrative voice, for the time she takes to set a scene when I race through these in adulthood, even when I’m the one writing them. Well, just at that moment, there was the reason why.

Ramona is fed up, her mother is swamped and exhausted, her father is being terribly short with her, and she is a little lost and hurt, until she learns from a surprising source how to make her own tin-can stilts. Well, that is just what she does. And as dusk settles in around her, and her neighborhood tucks itself in, and rain begins to fall, Ramona and Howie just clink-clank their way through it–singing 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall at the top of their lungs, all the way down to the last can. She comes home much too late and not even her father’s reaction or her sister’s bad mood can change hers now. She’s been lifted up by those tin-can stilts in more ways than one. It is such a moody moment and it captured me, sitting there reading it aloud with my own moody child. I was a moody child, with moody parents. I still am. And I love that Beverly Cleary acknowledged that, validated it, and likely healed me with those tin-can stilts the same way she healed Ramona that evening.

This is why I write books for kids and why I want to write about books for kids here. The best ones stay with us, lifting us up even after all these years.