Librarian and author Betsy Bird is on a mission: to let girls ages 8-12 (classified in the literary world as "middle grade") know they can survive adolescence with humor. To that end, Bird edited the recently released Funny Girl, a compilation of hilarious stories, comics, and more from top female middle grade authors, illustrators, and others. "Funny girls can become funny women," she says, "and funny women can rule the world."
How did the idea for this compilation come about? Well, it's kind of a funny story (no lie). I'm a children's librarian by training and over the years I'd notice that if there's one kind of book that boys and girls love equally it's books of the hilarious genre. Diary of a Wimpy Kid wasn't a "boy book," it was a book for everyone. So when a kid would come up to my desk asking for something funny, I had a bunch of other authors I'd recommend. I always made sure to include lots of female, as well as male authors, but after a while I thought it would be easiest if there was an anthology of funny female writers and illustrators for kids out there. But no such book existed! So I somehow managed to trick all these lovely ladies into writing a book with me, and here we are today.
How did you choose the authors? First, I made my dream list -- and boy howdy was it crazy. I was just shooting the moon. Big crazy names were on that list like J.K. Rowling and Kate DiCamilllo. Then there were the women I'd encountered over the years and just found hilarious. My editor at the time, Sharyn November, came up with the idea of including different kinds of humor in there, so we got stand-up comedians, YouTube stars, and more. Then I just started asking people. Sometimes they said no. Sometimes they said yes. Always they were supportive of the book, even when they couldn't do it. Women, it turns out, rock.
How did you pitch the authors on your idea, and what were their reactions? I made it clear to them that getting girls to realize that women are hilarious is imperative in this day and age. Here's a fun test: Poll a group of kids and ask them to name the funniest women they can. Now count how many of the people they list are related to them, how many are comedians, and how many actually write books. I bet your bottom dollar you'll get next to zero literary gals. So I told my contributors that Funny Girl wasn't just some sweet little anthology. It's a bloody mission to show the world that women are freakin' funny. I shouldn't have to do that, but sometimes I feel like I have to.
What do you want readers to take away from Funny Girl? On the surface, it's just a bunch of funny stories. But dig down a little and you'll see my sneaky little subversive theme. Do you know how you survive adolescence? It's the same way you survive life itself. With humor, as a weapon and a shield, you can distinguish yourself. Protect yourself. Arm yourself. Funny girls can become funny women, and funny women can rule the world.
Why do you think there's a lack of funny books or material for middle grade readers? It's tricky. Funny books are out there, absolutely. But they don't normally win the big literary awards for the same reason that comedies don't win Oscars. [Children's author] Jon Scieszka once explained it to me this way: Everyone can read something sad and say, "I felt sad after reading this." But everyone has a different sense of humor. Two people can read the same story and have completely different reactions to it. Humor is so subjective that it doesn't always make it to publication. The result is we get a slew of serious books every year, with a sprinkling of funny ones.
It seems like parents are confident finding books for our children up until the middle grade years, then we're stuck. What's your best advice for navigating middle grade offerings and helping kids find good books? I'm going to plug for my own profession here, but get thee to a library. If you can find a librarian who knows their stuff (and you may have to dig to find him or her, but they're out there) then you are set, my friend. Children's booksellers who love their job are the same way. Find an expert in the field willing to give you great suggestions. And while you're at it, why not follow some blogs that offer great middle grade suggestions? There are a bunch out there worth mentioning, so I'll just name drop the sites educating alice, 100 Scope Notes, Nerdy Book Club, and my own best beloved Fuse #8.
Do you have a favorite story in this anthology, and why is it your favorite? Arg! That's like asking which of my children I love the most! I can't do it! But what I can say is that there are two that I think read aloud to groups really well when I present the book. The first is the story by Carmen Agra Deedy, which may or may not feature a flaming bathtub. The second is by Shannon Hale and contains what may be the creepiest twins this side of the girls in The Shining. And yet it's hilarious!
Do you see a possible sequel in the future? Funny Girl 2? Absolutely! I've already mentally started collecting even more women that I'd like to include. No joke.