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The Frog's Hurt but It Doesn't Look Fatal : A loving look at the Rodney Dangerfield of literature: wit and humor in children's books : WHAT'S SO FUNNY? By Michael Cart (HarperCollins: $25; 288 pp.)

August 20, 1995|Jon Scieszka | Jon Scieszka is the author of "The Stinky Cheese Man" and "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs."

Writing a book about humor is a delicate operation. The remainder bin morgues are strewn with the corpses of failure. The idiosyncratic nature of humor, the cranky reader looking for an easy laugh and the coma-inducing effects of explaining a joke are just some of the potentially fatal hazards that await those who dare write about why funny is funny.

Michael Cart, who knows a thing or two about both children's books and reviewing (he's currently a contributor to this section, but has a long career as a writer and librarian), has taken the challenge and written a book about wit and humor in American children's literature. He does not venture forth blindly. He knows the hazards of his business, and so takes great pains to explain exactly what he is attempting to do. In his introduction, he declares his intention to celebrate his own "highly person al" selection of titles as a "reviewer and critic and lover of literature for children." He apologizes in advance for not including everyone's favorite funny writer. And before the first chapter is much under way, he wisely invokes the protective charm of E. B. White's cautionary warning: "Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process."

Cart's basic theory is that humorous writing for kids is undervalued and underappreciated--as he puts it, "the Rodney Dangerfield of literary forms: It gets no respect."

In order to deal with the sizable body of humorous children's literature, he narrows his investigation to three specific types of humorous books: domestic comedy, tall-tales and talking-animal comedy. Within these types, he then celebrates, as promised, his favorite writers of funny stories for children--writers such as Walter Brooks, Hugh Lofting, Robert Lawson, Arnold Lobel, Robert McCloskey, Sid Fleischman and Beverly Cleary.

If you know the work of these writers, you observe that Cart is a fan of gentle humor. (This is not a neighborhood where you will find the surreal laughs of a Maira Kalman picture book, the acerbic wit of a William Steig creation, or even the inspired silliness of Dr. Seuss.) Brooks wrote endless adventures of Freddy the Pig. Lofting was the creator of Dr. Dolittle and his talking animal pals. Lobel chronicled the ups and downs of those inseparable pals, Frog and Toad. And Cleary gave the world that feisty elementary school heroine, Ramona.

Each chapter, on a writer or group of writers, contains a bit of biography, a dash of analysis and a large helping of plot synopses. The biographical bits are the most revealing. It makes sense that "Make Way for Ducklings" and "Homer Price" would be written and illustrated by McCloskey, a fellow raised in small-town Ohio and educated at art schools in Boston and New York. Fleischman's teen-age travels with a vaudeville magic show explain a lot of the tall-tale dialogue and great yarn spinning in his writing. The plot synopses, though, are less revealing. An overabundance of plot description and quotes can bleed the humor from even the funniest character and story.

Lobel's Frog and Toad stories are some of the most elegantly written, touching and funny stories in all of children's literature, all the more impressive because they are written in a vocabulary, sentence structure and story line that a beginning reader can follow. But when the descriptions of Frog and Toad stories threaten to go on longer than the stories themselves, the specter of E. B. White's dissected frog begins to haunt the wary reader.

And I know Cart said he wasn't going to include everyone's favorite funny writer, but I still couldn't help hoping to hear the voices of more writers a little more recent than those who published the bulk of their work in the '30s, '40s and '50s: a bit of James Marshall's George and Martha, a taste of Daniel Pinkwater's "Fat Men From Space," Louis Sachar's sideways stories.

Humorous writing for children has been, and still is, undervalued. Many of the stories fist published specifically for kids were moralizing tales meant to improve the little readers. And though children's book publishing has come a long way since then, a good "serious" book is still much more likely to win publishing awards than a good funny book.

In light of this, it seems a shame to have missed the opportunity to rally more readers to the cause of humor with references to more contemporary writers. I kept hoping the last chapter might even be a list of funny books that would send readers out into the stores and libraries to find a wordless picture book by David Weisner, a goofy middle reader by Stephen Manes or any funny book that would help them find the value of funny books for themselves.

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