Here’s a funny fact: children laugh between 300 and 400 times a day. We boring, jaded adults manage 15 times, tops. I didn’t have that statistic at my fingertips when I began writing my first children’s book in what became the Pip Street series. But I knew that my children, aged seven and five at the time, were hard-wired to laugh. I also knew the yawn-inducing tedium of reading dull, humour-free fiction to them at bedtime. So although, as I sat at my laptop back in 2010, I had no idea what to write, I knew I wanted anything I did write to be funny.
Humour is, of course, hugely subjective, but children are a willing audience. They find all kinds of things amusing. There is the obvious lavatorial stuff and physical humour, too. I asked my son George what made him laugh before I began writing, and he said: ‘someone carrying a plank and hitting people on the head with it every time they turn around’! But beyond the fart gags and falling-overs is a world of more surreal, bizarre comedy that children are only too happy to engage with. They are less likely than adults to filter a fictional scene through the lens of ‘could that really happen?’, and far more willing to go with a silly scenario, an improbable character or an unforeseen twist.
With all this in mind, I wrote my Pip Street books with an eye on the absurd, but kept the stories rooted in reality. I wanted children – and any adults reading aloud to them – to identify on some level with the characters and predicaments. I took inspiration from the ordinary, pedestrian world around me – from news stories, local figures and the streets of my neighbourhood. Back in 2011 for instance, when A Whiskery Mystery was taking shape, I read and heard numerous stories of elderly men driving their mobility scooters while drunk, causing mayhem. So I wrote a character who drives too fast up and down the pavements (minus the alcohol, though!) and then called him Richard Keiths, as a gentle homage to our favourite Rolling Stones guitarist. Similarly, around this time, a woman was caught on CCTV putting a cat in a wheelie bin. Cat Bin Lady, as she became known, made it into A Whiskery Mystery as Mother Pie, an apparently benign oldie who nurses a secret loathing of felines.
Of course, when it comes to humour, you can have too much of a good thing. With this in mind, I tried to steer clear of anything self-consciously ‘zany’ and avoided too much authorial intervention, too, both of which can slow the pace and grate on the reader. The stories had to contain plenty of fun and a smidge of unexpectedness, but I also wanted them to touch on issues relevant to children. Friendship problems, anxiety about change and fear of the dark have all featured, and these problems are seen through the eyes of the main character, Bobby Cobbler. He is a sensible, bright, kind boy; a rock at the centre of each story. I think of him as a juvenile Ernie Wise to all the Eric Morecambes wandering around Pip Street (but perhaps just a shade cooler!). So when the speeding pensioners and cat bin ladies threaten to over-whackify the stories, Bobby balances things out with his level head and good heart. Every comedy needs a straight guy, after all.
Illustrations ©Steve Wells
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