Woman Laughing Alone With Books
April is National Humor Month, and as The Hub’s resident amateur stand-up comedian, I’ve been asked — okay, fine, I’ve taken it upon myself — to cover humorous YA novels. The category itself is fairly broad. After all, don’t most books have a little humor to lighten the mood? When can a book be classified under the “Humor” genre and when is it just a novel that happens to be funny, among other things? Are there differences in how authors approach “boy” humor versus “girl” humor? (If you thought I wouldn’t sneak gender politics into this post you were sadly mistaken.) Are there “classics” in YA humor? How far is too far when it comes to comic novels dealing with the tricky stuff? I can’t answer all these questions, but I can think about my own favorite YA novels that are pretty seriously funny, and tell you why I think so.
Everybody has different notions of what makes a book funny. You might be someone who says, “I’m just more interested in science fiction than in comic novels,” or “You know, I really prefer romance to humor.” That’s why I’ve got ten really great, really diverse books that defy genre to happily recommend to any reader, no matter what your comedy interests are.
First of all, I’d be remiss not to mention Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green. At this point, everyone on Planet Earth has read, or at least heard of, this book. I’m not even going to summarize it for you because you’ve probably read several summaries already. But Tiny Cooper happens to be one of my favorite characters in YA fiction, and easily one of the funniest, and his musical about his own life is enough to give this book a go for National Humor Month.
One of my unspoken rules of YA is that if an author I love loves another author, I have to read that second author’s work too. It’s the transitive property of YA lit, or something. That’s why I’m happy to report that Meg Cabot’s review of Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway did not let me down. Audrey, Wait! tells the story of a girlfriend who dumps her lead-singer boyfriend, Evan, only to become famous by association after Evan writes a song about it. Audrey, Wait! has a subtle feminist message about how being someone’s “muse” isn’t always a good thing, but more than that, it’s seriously funny and features a likable protagonist.
If you are one of my imaginary naysayers who prefers science fiction to comic novels, Be More Chil by Ned Vizzini gives you the best of both worlds. Written in 2004 and said to speculate a “future” around 2010, the book focuses on high school student Jeremy, who decides to be proactive about his lack of success with girls and popularity by inserting the “squip” — a computer in pill form that directly communicates with the brain. The results are about as successful and hilarious as you might imagine.
For the ladies who like their comedy in the form of romantic comedy, I suggest Thwonk by Joan Bauer. Joan Bauer has always been one of my favorite YA authors. Some of her novels might be less lighthearted than others, but Thwonk is, in my opinion, both lighthearted and zany. It also deals with unrequited teen love, which in and of itself can be a darkly comic experience. The protagonist, A.J., suffers in silence before getting her very own personal cupid, who swears he can make all her romantic dreams come true. Cupid turns out to be deeply annoying and A.J. learns that sometimes having a crush’s undivided adoration comes with a price.
Like Thwonk, Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things was written over ten years ago. In fact, I actually read this book before I started high school, but I found it so eerily relatable it has stayed with me. Ginny is a protagonist whose running commentary in her own head matches your own verbatim, only it’s about ten times funnier. This one is a must-read for any girl between the ages of, say, thirteen and sixteen, no matter how you feel about your own body.
For those of you who like your comedy to take aim at society, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie will not disappoint. This book deals with some pretty serious subjects, but then again, I’m a firm believer that humor is a valuable approach to some of humanity’s ugliest truths, and Alexie’s deft treatment of subjects like racism, sexism, class and even death itself is enhanced by a narrator who is truly funny. While teenage boys are perhaps the target audience for this novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will prove to any reader that comedy is never an inappropriate response to the toughest parts of the human experience.
Lots of YA novels get hit with the pesky moniker “coming of age”, but Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen by Dyan Sheldon does fit the bill. I was hit with a wave of nostalgia for my own dramatic teen years when I thought of this book, and fellow post-grad readers probably will be too. Even though Confessions was published in 1999, so much of the high school experience remains the same. Mary Elizabeth/Lola is the kind of person you will identify with but are still glad not to be.
If you prefer characters who are literally, and not just figuratively, on another planet, The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett is one of my all-time favorites. It transcends both the fantasy and YA genres, and those of us who are familiar with Pratchett’s adult Discworld series will be pleased to note this takes place in the same universe. Tiffany Aching is only nine years old at the start of this novel, but she’s so sassy and smart you won’t notice. Plus the sequels are just as good!
If you are a teenage boy or still have the mind of one, Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner is for you. It holds the honor of having one of the greatest titles I’ve ever seen, and the content is just as mind-blowingly hysterical. Shakespeare Shapiro is a high school senior who resents his parents for the name and his entire life for being, in his eyes, extremely unlucky. His best friends are just as hapless in life and love as he is, and the novel centers around Shapiro’s attempts to write a memoir for his English class. The only complaint I have is that his love interest is a little thinly-wrought and cliched for my tastes, and it makes me wish male authors would remember female readers like to laugh too.
Finally, if you haven’t read the Confessions of Georgia Nicholson series by Louise Rennison, I need you to stop what you’re doing and obtain a copy of Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging immediately. Rennison maintains a rollicking, madcap pace for ten novels, told in diary form, about an irrepressible British teenager and her unbelievable antics. Do not read these in public, but do read them as soon as possible.
I know, that’s a lot of books to get through when we’re more than halfway through April, but I’m sure your boss or teachers will understand shirking the rest of your responsibilities to give a proper send-off to National Humor Month.
— Chelsea Condren, currently reading All the Wrong Questions by Lemony Snicket