Authored by Katie Davis
July 9, 2020
Although teens may crack fewer knock-knock jokes or giggle less often over puns, humor is a popular ingredient in young adult books and stories. Humor can be both bold and comforting when approaching touchy subjects, which young adult fiction often does. It can be a way for a young adult book to explore the extremely difficult moments in a young person's life without overwhelming the reader.
Humor for teens is often very different in approach and tone from that for younger children. Teens are usually fluent readers and complex thinkers, so the humor can be darker or more complicated. Humor based on social commentary will work better for teens than for younger children. This doesn't mean the lighter, sillier types of humor won't ever work, but it may require a slightly different approach. Let's look at some of the kinds of humor that work well for teens.
Teens tend to be living in a mixed world between childhood and adulthood. They may be making adult decisions. They may be shouldering more adult responsibilities and decisions and all of this pressure can make the teen years extremely stressful. Teens can be self-focused as they try to figure out who they are, and how they function in the world around them. This combination of factors is often reflected in YA books as typical teen snark. This kind of snarky commentary can be truly funny as long as it isn’t too angry, hopeless, or hurtful. It can be darker than middle grade life commentary, but usually won't be as dark as humor can sometimes get in adult books.
Let's check out an examples of YA humor from two different books. Both books have main characters who are teenagers. In I Have a Bad Feeling About This by Jeff Strand, the main character, Henry, is 16. In the second book we'll look at, the main character is 17. But the approach to the humor in each book is quite different. Consider first, this excerpt in which Henry shares his feelings about himself:
Though he would never, ever, ever admit this to anybody, he was always envious of the guys who could easily talk to girls or who could play team sports without embarrassing and/or hurting themselves....It would be nice to have the self-confidence to say, "Hi, I'm Henry. Wanna get to know me?" (He wouldn't say it in quite that manner of course. That was just the general concept of what he'd say if he had self-confidence.
This might be considered YA humor that's a bit on the young side. The main character is identified as 16 but the reader age is skewed toward the younger side of YA, more like 12-13. As with younger age groups, readers of young YA are often reading up, seeking books with characters older than themselves.
Now let’s look at humor that is a little older and darker. This humor is written for readers closer in age to the 17-year-old main character. In The Beginnning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, the main character is commenting on the time after his car accident, an accident which had come on the heels of finding his girlfriend cheating on him:
So who was I in the aftermath of my personal tragedy? At first, I was a lousy sport when it came to the chipper attitudes of the pediatrics nurses. And then I was a stranger in my own home, a temporary occupant of the downstairs guest room. An invalid, if you will, which is probably the most horrific word I've ever heard to describe someone who is supposed to be recuperating. In the context of a mathematical proof, if something is considered "invalid," it has been demonstrated through irrefutable logic not to exist.
If you consider these two examples, we can see why the second might be considered "older" YA. The thinking behind it is more complex. The second excerpt still carries the hint of the same kind of self-deprecating attitude as the first, but the overall tone is darker and bleaker. Both characters are basically seeing themselves as losers, but the second is going further, toward seeing himself as nonexistent.
Still, the second is humor, albeit dark. The author coaxes us to picture the kind of chipper cajoling the character experienced from the pediatric nurses. Clearly the nurse saw him as a child, but he failed to respond to the kind of perky cheer that works with actual children. The teen reader will recognize that incident since adults so often underestimate them so the wry wording will be humorous. Not laugh out loud funny, but still humorous.
Even the most serious book will often have comic dialogue moments. These give the author an opportunity to lighten the mood, especially if they come after a serious event. Consider this exchange from The Beginning of Everything. It occurs at the first school event after the main character's life-changing accident. Here he reconnects with an old friend, Toby:
"You should get a sword cane," [Toby] said. "That would be badass. I know a guy, if you're interested."
"You know a sword-cane guy?"
"Don't sound so surprised of my shadowy connections, Faulkner. Technically he deals in concealed weaponry."
This bit of dialogue is mildly amusing by itself, but it's also written to set the reader up for the "punch line" which comes several lines later. The humor set-up pays off after the school event turns into a kind of pep rally, which the two boys find embarrassing:
"Kill me now," moaned Toby.
"I would, but I seem to be lacking a sword cane," I told him.
The set up and pay off for this bit of humor took longer than in books for younger readers because teens are better able to process this kind of complex set-up. In real life, teens often have jokes between friends that are call backs to earlier conversations.
Contrast that kind of slow pay-off with the more direct humor in this exchange from I Have a Bad Feeling About This. This conversation occurs when the dad is trying to talk Henry into the survival camp:
"This is a joke, right?"
"No, it's real, and we think it would be good for you."
"See, I was kind of thinking the exact opposite. Literally. The exact opposite. One hundred and eighty degrees."
"You mean three-sixty."
Henry shook his head. "One-eighty. Three-sixty brings you back to where you started."
"Oh, you're right."
"Maybe you need geometry camp."
This exchange is much more rapid fire with the jokes paying off right away, which is also how humor dialogue tends to work for younger kids. One difference here, something that generally doesn't appear until early young adult, is Henry's snarky comment to his dad, "Maybe you need geometry camp." The dad scolds him for the snark, but you likely wouldn't see it at all in a book for younger kids. Middle grade sometimes allows the main character to think the snarky comment to an adult, but he'll often self-censor to avoid the possible repercussions of saying it. Teens will often dare to speak.
Sound and Word Humor
One other thing about teen humor, it can have elements of the kinds of humor that work for younger readers. Teens can enjoy the occasional pun, even one that is a groaner. They can appreciate sound effects for humorous effect. Although this kind of humor will occur less often in stories and books for teens, they aren't forbidden. Teens sometimes like the kind of call-back to the things they enjoyed about younger books.
Let's look at another excerpt from I Have a Bad Feeling About This. In this excerpt we see how the author combined a kind of humor that works for younger children (sound effects) with the kind of snarky commentary humor that works well for older readers:
"The car made a THUB THUB THUB sound, and Henry kept glancing out the rear window to make sure that useful pieces weren't being left behind."
Another thing you often see in humor for younger readers is the rule-of-three joke, where there are three items in a list and the humor comes in the third. This will still happen, even older YA. Consider this excerpt from The Beginning of Everything, which combines a rule-of-three joke with the snarky voice of the teen narrator:
"I grunted and took a sip of the lemonade, which tasted awful. Everything my mom bought was healthy, which meant that it was helpfully missing at least one key ingredient, such as gluten, sugar, or flavor."
So teen humor be a little of everything. It can be darker and more complex than humor for younger readers, but it can also draw from all the things that younger readers find funny. In many ways, it's like the teen years themselves mixing childhood with adulthood in ways that can be surprising, touching, and revealing.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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