At the risk of sounding overly fond of myself, I think I’ve established a bit of a reputation as a funny writer – Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities has gotten a few blurbs that mention it being funny, and humor’s one of those things I’ve gotten positive feedback about over the past few years. I’m comfortable with that, since I like books that are amusing, and I want to write books that I myself would like.
Geeks isn’t my only published thingie coming out this year, however – I also have an essay in Dear Teen Me: Authors Write Letters to Their Teen Selves, the Zest Books anthology edited by kidlit stalwarts E. Kristen Anderson and Miranda Kenneally. When I wrote my original post for the Dear Teen Me blog, I got a few comments about “oh hey, I was expecting to read this and laugh, but instead you made me cry! DAMN YOU, MIKE JUNG, DAMN YOU FOR MAKING ME WEEP…”
Okay, I made up that last part with the all caps and stuff. But it was clear I’d upended some expectations about my writing style, and I was actually very happy about that because…well, I don’t want to be pigeonholed. Who does, right? It’s not that I plan to start writing emotionally wrenching contemporary realistic fiction tomorrow, of course, although I suspect I’ll give it a whirl one of these days.
The thing which I’m working hard to figure out is how to keep humor and emotional sincerity in alignment with each other. A book that does this very, very well is Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich‘s 8TH GRADE SUPERZERO, a serious contender for Mike’s Favorite Book of 2010. It’s a profoundly meaningful book that explores questions of religious faith, social justice in both theory and practice, how we define our identities and self-worth, activism, and civic engagement. It’s intelligent, informed, and steeped in humanistic values, which could easily make for a book that’s didactic and overly earnest.
But SUPERZERO is also one of the most riotously funny books I’ve read in recent years, and its humor isn’t compartmentalized from its intelligence and sincerity. There’s a scene where the protagonist, Reggie McKnight, tosses off a flippant little statement that riffs on the topic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – I literally laughed out loud when I read it, and thought to myself “HOW did she do that?” It was like a perfect synthesis of ideological meaning, personal history, and straightforward tween humor. I still marvel at the way Gbemi did that – she stirred up a laugh riot, but she didn’t compromise a single thing to do so.
Another (and extremely obvious) example of the ability to weave together humor and sincerity is J.K. Rowling, whose books about that kid named Harry are masterful at provoking laughs AND being emotionally vulnerable. A lot of crazy bad stuff happens to Harry and his friends, but there are also a ton of funny moments along the way. Some of them are character-based giggles, such as Fred Weasley saying “Honestly, women, you call yourself our mother?” And then there are moments like when Harry, Ron, and Hermione defeat the troll in Book 1: “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.” Funny, but also sweet, and meaningful, and sincere.
It’s a hard thing to do. It doesn’t make it any easier that we live in a society that’s been marinating itself in irony for years. Snark and razor-edged wit are highly valued today. Sincerity, honest sentiment, and emotional vulnerability? Not so much. It’s not a completely one-sided situation, however. I feel luckier and luckier every day to have found my way into the children’s writing community, because I believe this IS one of the relatively few arenas where irony isn’t dominant, but is relegated to its rightful place as ONE aspect of the communicative arena.
The good news is that I have a book coming out that I’m told is funny (for some people, at least, and it’ll never be funny to EVERYONE but that’s okay), and I’m working with Arthur Levine, whose body of work exhibits a supreme ability to recognize those two aspects in a book and make them work together as a cohesive, powerful team. There’s Harry Potter, of course, but there’s also Lisa Yee, and David LaRochelle, and Dan Santat, and a towering stack of others.
Hopefully my little book isn’t just high-calorie, low-nutrition giggles – I’d love to know that readers also find it emotionally real, and a little sweet, and genuinely sincere. I hope the inverse will be true of my piece in the Dear Teen Me anthology too, now that I think about it – it’d be great to know that readers aren’t just walloped over the head with the emotional content (much of which is rather dark), but can also find a few grins scattered here and there amidst the remembrances of past struggles.
I suppose some may think it’s a little early to think about this kind of stuff, but I’m not so sure. I’m in this for the long haul, you know? And sure, I’m thinking about it in a very deliberate “how I want my career to go and how will I be affected by the perceptions of readers and critics” kind of way, but I’m also thinking about it in creative terms. I know I have a bunch of stories waiting to emerge from the fevered pits of my brain, and not all of them are as straightforward as Geeks. I’ll want to try new things, and write stories that challenge me, and expand my creative horizons.
I hope I can do it. I’m definitely going to try.