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“Making Lemonade out of Lemons: Creating Humor out of Sadness”

One of the things I’m asked most often about my debut middle grade novel, SUPER JAKE & THE KING OF CHAOS, is the role of humor – specifically how there’s so much in what could be a very sad book. Both the humor and the heaviness stem from truth, because SUPER JAKE is inspired by life with my three sons, the youngest of whom (Jake) had special needs.

Jake’s many limitations were heartbreaking, as was his death at only 28 months. And yet, my family – especially Jake’s big brothers – managed to find, and create, a lot of laughter and joy despite the difficulties. For that reason I tried to balance the inherent sadness surrounding his fragile health with a sense of playfulness and humor throughout the book. Here are five ways to use humor in a sad story, with examples from SUPER JAKE.

  • Establish a fun, or funny, tone from the get-go.

In early drafts, the story opened with the 11-year-old hero, Ethan, being awakened in the middle of the night because of a Jake-related medical emergency. This scene is still in the book; it just comes 155 pages later. Although it was a sure-fire dramatic start, as the main story shifted from Jake to Ethan, it was clear that the book needed to start with Ethan doing his favorite thing: magic. And what could be funnier, and more endearing, than entertaining a dozen 3-year-old girls dressed like Disney princesses? Throw in goofy younger brother, 7-year-old Freddy, and an unexpected appearance by SpongeBob, and you’ve got a fun tone to kick things off. Later in the chapter Jake shows up, too, and a bit of sadness creeps in but – hopefully – the reader already knows this story will have plenty of lighthearted moments.

  • Include a character who provides comic relief.

This, without question, is Freddy, the lovable middle brother. I could always count on him to come to the rescue when things got too sad. Sometimes it was a simple visual gag, like bubble gum exploding all over his face. Other times it was unexpected dialogue, or his interrupting a somber moment any number of ways. And sometimes, it was just his sweet, innocent take on things: he was a great vehicle to lighten tension.

  • Incorporate a sense of play, and playfulness, to mitigate sad circumstances.

There is nothing remotely fun, or funny, about having to “stretch” Jake’s arms and legs because he was unable to do it on his own. And yet in the book, as in real life, his big brothers got in on the act and even managed to turn physical therapy into a good time: Ethan takes a benign teddy bear and creates… Ninja Bear! Another example is how Jake’s unusual hearing creates a funny scene when Ethan plays his trumpet without waking Jake to stir, but Mom’s quiet (and angry) whisper immediately wakes him up.

  • Do something surprising.

This technique is very helpful and can be used frequently and in many ways. Have someone you wouldn’t expect do something unexpected: Ms. Carlin, Ethan’s beloved English teacher, has a crush on Ethan’s hero, Magnus the Magnificent. (Spoiler alert: teachers are human! You heard it here first.) Have an unexpected dialogue exchange, like on p. 23:

Freddy:            I’m doing a huge battle of dinosaurs versus Star Wars. I thought the Star Wars people would win because they’ve got lightsabers. But the dinosaurs were  hungry, so they ate them.

Ethan:              The lightsabers?

Freddy:            The people.

Or create an unexpected, and much-needed, break in tension. This occurs organically in lots of Ethan’s magic tricks. It seems like something has gone wrong, then he pulls it off. Another example of breaking tension with humor is when Ethan tries to convince his frenemy, Ned, that cake will make him feel better. Just as Ethan is about to give up, Ned asks, “What flavor is it?”

  • Switch from tears to laughter.

One of my favorite writers, Paula Danziger, said that her favorite thing to do was switch from tears to laughter, or laughter to tears, “on a dime.” I have tried to do the same. Even if it’s something small, the contrast makes the new, unexpected emotion pack a bigger punch.

Laughter to tears is pretty easy when you’ve got a character like Jake. Here’s bit with Ethan and his buddies at lunch, as they try to figure out how he can pay for a magic competition:

Brian:              Hey! Maybe you could sell one of your brothers.

Ethan:              Nah. I’d have to pay somebody to take Freddy.

Daniel:            How about Jake? Lots of people want babies.

Brian:              Only perfect ones.

Tears to laughter usually happens courtesy of Freddy. In the dialogue below, the truth is the possibility of Jake ever tackling homework is a sad reminder that his limitations are far-reaching and probably permanent. And yet…

Freddy:            Hey, Ethan, you think someday I’ll help Jake with his math homework?

Ethan:              I don’t know. How much is eight plus two?

Freddy:            Twelve?

Creating laughter from tears, or happiness from sadness, isn’t only doable: it’s critical, especially in children’s books. I hope these approaches will show readers that they can find – and make – joy out of even the saddest situations.

More information on the book can be found at: https://www.hachettebookgroup.com/titles/naomi-milliner/super-jake-and-the-king-of-chaos/9780762466160/.

Super Jake & the King of Chaos
Author: Naomi Milliner
Published May 7th, 2019 by Running Press Kids

About the Book: A debut contemporary novel about 11-year-old aspiring magician Ethan, who discovers that heroes come in all sizes, and real magic can be found in the most unexpected places.

When life revolves around stressed-out parents and ER visits for his special needs little brother Jake, eleven-year-old Ethan escapes to a world of top hats, trick decks, and magic wands. When he hears of a junior magic competition where the top prize is to meet and perform with his hero, Magnus the Magnificent, Ethan is determined to do whatever he needs to get there–and to win.

His dedication and hard work pay off, and he makes it to the top five finalists: his dream really could come true! Then Jake falls dangerously ill and Ethan’s hopes and plans are in jeopardy. As he searches for any sort of magic that might save Jake, Ethan learns what is truly important . . . and what real magic is.

About the Author: Naomi Milliner has a Bachelor’s Degree in English and a Master’s in Screenwriting from USC Film School. As a long-time member of SCBWI, she created the Authors Book Club (ABC) for published authors and illustrators to share their journey with other members. She has also served on the Women’s National Book Association’s Great Group Reads Committee since 2009. She lives in Maryland, with her husband and sons.

Thank you so much for this guest post about how authors mix sadness and humor!

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Nice Try, Jane Sinner
Author: Lianne Oelke
Published: January 9, 2018 by Clarion

Guest Review by Natalia Sperry

Summary: The only thing 17-year-old Jane Sinner hates more than failure is pity. After a personal crisis and her subsequent expulsion from high school, she’s going nowhere fast. Jane’s well-meaning parents push her to attend a high school completion program at the nearby Elbow River Community College, and she agrees, on one condition: she gets to move out.

Jane tackles her housing problem by signing up for House of Orange, a student-run reality show that is basically Big Brother, but for Elbow River Students. Living away from home, the chance to win a car (used, but whatever), and a campus full of people who don’t know what she did in high school… what more could she want? Okay, maybe a family that understands why she’d rather turn to Freud than Jesus to make sense of her life, but she’ll settle for fifteen minutes in the proverbial spotlight.

As House of Orange grows from a low-budget web series to a local TV show with fans and shoddy T-shirts, Jane finally has the chance to let her cynical, competitive nature thrive. She’ll use her growing fan base, and whatever Intro to Psychology can teach her, to prove to the world—or at least viewers of substandard TV—that she has what it takes to win.

Review: I’ll admit, I’m always a sucker for a strong, sarcastic, and somewhat troubled YA protagonist, and Jane Sinner did not disappoint. Nice Try, Jane Sinner is psychological and philosophical, a little crass and silly, sometimes downright strange, and always full of tremendous heart—but then, isn’t that college? It was refreshing to read an older YA: Jane is right on that cusp of “not really a teenager anymore, but definitely not a full a full-fledged adult.” As she navigates her senior year in high school, taking classes at the local community college, I felt that, even beyond its obvious and intentional quirks, Jane’s story is startlingly unique in how it captures the whirlwind of  emotions felt during that transitional time. It also offered a healthy balance of relationships, featuring Jane’s loving yet tense parents, adoring but annoying little sister, and a cast of friends too diverse to affix any one guiding set of adjectives to.

Written in diary-format, the book is told exactly as Jane wants it to be, which adds an interesting dimension of questionability to her narration. Dialogue is captured in script format, which prompts readers to question at times what’s reality and what’s for show, on House of Orange and beyond. What Jane does and doesn’t tell the narrator about her past, her genuine feelings, and her motivation leads to some interesting twists.  In particular, Jane’s “Doctor/Self” internal dialogues were really compelling. Like the eponymous Jane Sinner herself, however, the book at times deflects the greater thematic issues at hand through its sarcasm and humor. Jane’s story revolves around a personal crisis—one that I wish the book would have delved in deeper to by the end. I did enjoy Jane’s exploration of religion and the expectations young people are sometimes held to, which is a topic I’ve yet to see be fully explored in YA.

For all its quirks and flaws, Jane Sinner has a heart of gold. It conjures up all the emotions of a teen on the brink of “adulthood,” while still maintaining a sarcastic yet thoughtful spark throughout. It’s refreshing to remember that being a young adult doesn’t end at high school, and life doesn’t have to either.

Teacher’s Tool For Navigation: I’ll admit, I’m always a sucker for a strong, sarcastic, and somewhat troubled YA protagonist, and Jane Sinner did not disappoint. Nice Try, Jane Sinner is psychological and philosophical, a little crass and silly, sometimes downright strange, and always full of tremendous heart — but then, isn’t that college? It was refreshing to read an older YA: Jane is right on that cusp of “not really a teenager anymore, but definitely not a full a full-fledged adult.” As she navigates her senior year in high school, taking classes at the local community college, I felt that, even beyond its obvious and intentional quirks, Jane’s story is startlingly unique in how it captures the whirlwind of  emotions felt during that transitional time. It also offered a healthy balance of relationships, featuring Jane’s loving yet tense parents, adoring but annoying little sister, and a cast of friends too diverse to affix any one guiding set of adjectives to.

Written in diary-format, the book is told exactly as Jane wants it to be, which adds an interesting dimension of questionability to her narration. Dialogue is captured in script format, which prompts readers to question at times what’s reality and what’s for show, on House of Orange and beyond. What Jane does and doesn’t tell the narrator about her past, her genuine feelings, and her motivation leads to some interesting twists.  In particular, Jane’s “Doctor/Self” internal dialogues were really compelling. Like the eponymous Jane Sinner herself, however, the book at times deflects the greater thematic issues at hand through its sarcasm and humor. Jane’s story revolves around a personal crisis–one that I wish the book would have delved in deeper to by the end. I did enjoy Jane’s exploration of religion and the expectations young people are sometimes held to, which is a topic I’ve yet to see be fully explored in YA.

For all its quirks and flaws, Jane Sinner has a heart of gold. It conjures up all the emotions of a teen on the brink of “adulthood,” while still maintaining a sarcastic yet thoughtful spark throughout. It’s refreshing to remember that being a young adult doesn’t end at high school, and life doesn’t have to either.

Discussion Questions:  Even in the context of the book, Jane is quite the controversial character to those around her — did you “like” Jane? How might this shape your perception of the book as a reader? Does “likability” matter in protagonists? Think about if Jane was gender-swapped: would this change how we view some of her more questionable decisions or characteristics?

Flagged: “I need to psychoanalyze myself for Intro Psych. I’m not sure how that’s possible; the prof was rather vague on the specifics in class today. I was also caught up in a doodle of my hand. I outlined my hand on my notes because the notes were ugly and otherwise useless. I layered the inside with different-colored gel pens until the outline was fairly thick. In the middle of the hand I drew toasters and toast. The whole thing came together really well. One of my better efforts. But I’m not sure how to psychoanalyze myself. I suppose I’ll have to be both the doctor and patient. Maybe the two of me can come up with some profoundly insightful insight.

A middle-aged man with thinning brown hair and a cozy sweater vest motions for Jane to lie down on the sofa. He takes a seat on the overstuffed leather armchair and crosses his legs like a girl.

THE DOCTOR

Hello, Ms. Sinner.

JS

                          Hi.” (Page 46-47).

Read This If You Loved: Anything by John Green (Turtles All the Way Down in particular),  Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

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The Lost Girl
Author: Anne Ursu
Published February 12th, 2019 by Walden Pond Press

Summary: Sometimes you need to lose something in order to find yourself.

Beloved author John David Anderson returns with a heartwarming, heartbreaking and unforgettable story of the true power and limits of family.

    Ron Kwirk comes from a rather odd family. His mother named him and his sisters after her favorite constellations, and his father makes funky-flavored jelly beans for a living. One sister acts as if she’s always onstage, and the other is a walking dictionary. But no one in the family is more odd than Rion’s grandfather, Papa Kwirk.

    He’s the kind of guy who shows up on his motorcycle only on holidays, handing out crossbows and stuffed squirrels as presents. Rion has always been fascinated by Papa Kwirk, especially since his son—Rion’s father—is the complete opposite. Where Dad is predictable, nerdy, and reassuringly boring, Papa Kwirk is mysterious, dangerous, and cool.

    Which is why, when Rion and his family learn of Papa Kwirk’s death and pile into the car to attend his funeral and pay their respects, Rion can’t help but fell that that’s not the end of the story. That there’s so much more to Papa Kwirk to discover.

    He doesn’t know how right he is.

About the Author:John David Anderson is the author of some of the most beloved and highly acclaimed books for kids in recent memory, including the New York Times Notable Book Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, Posted, Granted, Sidekicked, and The Dungeoneers. A dedicated root beer connoisseur and chocolate fiend, he lives with his wonderful wife and two frawsome kids in Indianapolis, Indiana. He’s never eaten seven scoops of ice cream in a single sitting, but he thinks it sounds like a terrific idea. You can visit him online at www.johndavidanderson.org.

Praise: 

“Readers will be happily swept along by Rion’s first-person narration, which is often amusing, sometimes bemused, and occasionally even tender as he shows how his family was unwittingly drawn together by their shared experience. Anderson offers another original novel written with wit and compassion.” – Booklist

“Humor, plot twists, and quirky characters abound in this earnest middle grade tale of self-discovery.” – School Library Journal

“Eccentric yet believable characters and Rion’s perceptive narration prevent Anderson’s unpredictable tale from feeling overwrought as the relationships between three generations of fathers and sons are rewritten anew.” – Publisher’s Weekly

Review: The characters’ last name says it all: Kwirk. This book is full of quirks. I found the beginning so funny that I had to read it out loud to my son and husband while we were driving, and that was literally and figuratively just the beginning. I have read all but one of Anderson’s books, and reading Finding Orion reminded me again why I enjoy his writing so much: that Anderson does so brilliantly, when he tackles humor, is that he can combine a serious topic (death) with humor and it doesn’t seem far fetched or cheap. It seems perfect. 

The cast of characters, though over the top at times, added so much to the story. They are extravagant, a bit weird, and very entertaining. While Rion sometimes found himself just along for the ride, the other characters took the wheel and drove us through the story.

Another winning book for Anderson that I cannot wait to share with my students.

Educators’ Guide: 

Discussion Questions: 

  • When was a time that you felt like an outcast in your family?
  • What jelly bean flavor would you want to try? Would never try?
  • How did Papa Kwirk’s personality affect how different his son is?
  • Rion and his sisters are more alike than he wants to admit. Create only a comparison chart showing how they are alike with text evidence to support it.
  • How did the fun-neral change Rion’s perspective on his grandfather?
  • How did learning about the whole other life his grandfather have affect Rion?
  • What roles did the animals play in the story?
  • How is the author’s ability to create quirky characters change the trajectory of the story?

Flagged Passages: Read an excerpt here! It is the first few pages that had me actually laughing out loud while reading it.

Read This If You Love: The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman, Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina, Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard, Death and Douglas by JW Ockler, Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

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Don’t miss out on the other stops in the blog tour!

Blog Tour May 6-14, 2019

May 6 Nerdy Book Club
May 7 Bluestocking Thinking
May 8 The Book Monsters
May 9 Maria’s Melange
May 13 This Kid Reviews Books
May 14 Kirsti Call

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**Thank you to Walden Pond Press for providing a copy for review and giveaway!**

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Hush Up and Hibernate
Author: Sandra Markle
Illustrator: Howard McWilliam
Published August 28th 2018 by Persnickety Press

Goodreads Summary: Leaves are falling, a cold wind is blowing, geese are heading south. Clearly, winter is coming. It’s time for black bears to do what they always do this time of year―hibernate. Kids will get a kick out of this romp of a tale about a black bear cub that finds every excuse imaginable to avoid the inevitable go-to-bed moment. Will Mama Bear finally win? Or will Baby Bear come up with the ultimate reason to skip going to sleep?

Review: As I sit and write this post, it is 9:50pm, and my older child is upstairs not sleeping. The chance of him crafting an excuse to come out of his room within the next 10 minutes? High. So saying that I enjoyed this book is an understatement. I found great joy in reading this book to my son. We first read it a few weeks ago, and I’ve told him to hush up and hibernate a few dozen times. It’s a clever book that parents will enjoy immensely. The illustrations are beautifully done (take a look at the gem shared below!). If you take a look at the cover image (above), you will see the baby bear’s face. The way he’s reacting to his mother is an all-too-familiar look that makes me chuckle. I absolutely adored this charming book. When my son chooses it for his bedtime book, I have a warm, happy feeling. This signifies that it is a good book and one to keep.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: It would be fun for kids to create their own version of this book—imagining an animal that is refusing to do something and giving every excuse imaginable to a parent. I suspect that this would be a fun writing exercise for kids, and they might reconsider their constant excuses.

Discussion Questions: What are some of the excuses that Baby Bear uses? What excuses have you used? What strategies does he use, and do they work?

We Flagged:

Read This If You Loved: Share, Big Bear, Share by Maureen Wright, Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson, The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton, Twenty Yawns by Jane Smiley and Lauren Castillo

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**Thank you to Wiley at Saichek Publicity for providing a copy for review!**

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Sun! One in a Billion
Author: Stacy McAnulty
Illustrator: Stevie Lewis
Published October 23, 2018

Summary: From the author of Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years comes a new picture book about space—
this time starring our Sun!

Meet Sun: He’s a star! And not just any star—he’s one in a billion. He lights up our solar system and makes life possible. With characteristic humor and charm, Stacy McAnulty channels the voice of Sun in this next celestial “autobiography.” Rich with kid-friendly facts and beautifully illustrated, this is an equally charming and irresistible companion to Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years.

Ricki’s ReviewThis is my new favorite book about space. (And I have read a lot of books about space.) The author perfectly balances factual information and appeal. The illustrations pop off of the page, and the planets, sun, etc. are personified. I feel very lucky to have received this book for review. I am quite excited to read it to my son tomorrow night. I think I smiled throughout my entire reading of the book. If you are interested in space, get this book. It includes facts that were new to me, and the back matter offers a wealth of information for readers who want to delve deeper.

Kellee’s Review: The humor that Stacy McAnulty adds to her books about space really add to the engagement factor (for both the reader and listener); the Sun’s attitude in this one actually made me laugh out loud while reading, but I also learned some pretty cool facts while reading. I know that this book is going to be in our rotation because Trent wants to be an astronaut, and this one was an instant hit! I am so glad that there are amazing space books out there that add something new to the conversation and go about the information in a new and funny way! I really hope that this series continues because I’d love to see the personalities of all of the other parts of our solar system (and maybe some cool space objects from other systems!).

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Teachers might ask students to pick one fact in the book that makes them want to learn more about the world. They could look, for example, into a planet, or into the history of Earth. This inspires student-centered inquiry about a topic of choice!

Discussion Questions: 

  • How is the text structured in ways that are engaging and interesting?
  • What new facts did you learn?
  • Which page was your favorite, and why?
  • Did this book inspire you to want to learn more about any topics or information?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years by Stacy McAnulty; Science, Space, Picture books with humorous narrators like It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk by Josh FunkNothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex

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**Thank you to Kelsey at Macmillan for setting up the blog tour for Sun!**

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Eraser
Author: Anna Kang
Illustrator: Christopher Weyant
Published August 1, 2018 by Two Lions

Summary: Eraser is always cleaning up everyone else’s mistakes. Except for Ruler and Pencil Sharpener, none of the other school supplies seem to appreciate her. They all love how sharp Pencil is and how Tape and Glue help everyone stick together. Eraser wants to create so that she can shine like the others. She decides to give it a try, but it’s not until the rubber meets the road that Eraser begins to understand a whole lot about herself.

Inspired by a school essay their daughter Kate wrote in the third grade, the author and illustrator behind Theodor Seuss Geisel Award–winner You Are (Not) Small have created a desktop drama about figuring out who you are, finding happiness, and the importance of second, third, and maybe even fourth chances.

About the Creators: Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant are the creators of Theodor Seuss Geisel Award winner You Are (Not) Small and its follow-ups That’s (Not) Mineand I Am (Not) Scared. Christopher’s work can be seen routinely in The New Yorker magazine and his cartoons are syndicated worldwide. As an author, Anna regularly goes through first, second, and third drafts. Chris wears down many erasers while making his art. This husband-and-wife team lives in New Jersey with their two daughters and their rescue dog. Visit them at www.annakang.com and www.christopherweyant.com.
Twitter: @annakang27 @chrisweyant05
Instagram: annakangbooks; christopherweyant
Facebook: Anna Kang – Author; Christopher Weyant

Ricki’s Review: I love this author-illustrator team. Every book that they’ve written has been brilliant. This book offers readers a glimpse inside the mind of the lesser-known characters in life. It forces us to think about who we are overlooking and who deserves more praise. It’s easy to get caught up in our own lives and the lives of those who are close to us, and we often forget to consider those who feel distant to us. My son and I talked about this together, and he said there are some kids at school that he doesn’t talk with often. I asked him what this book taught him, and he said that it reminded him to talk with more friends in his class and to be kind. With a valuable message and a powerful punch, this book is sure to become a favorite in classrooms.

Kellee’s Review: There are times in all of our lives that we question our purpose. Someone louder, prettier, more aggressive, or different than you may get recognition where you don’t even though you feel you deserve it. But it is all about valuing yourself and showing others that value, but we don’t need others to tell us our worth. That is what Eraser teaches us. When we finished, Trent said that Pencil learned that she needed help and Eraser learned she IS important. If that isn’t a message that I want my son to learn, I don’t know what is. Oh, and it is quite funny sometimes, and like Kang & Weyant’s other books, it is told in dialogue only so the illustrations play a big part in the telling of the story.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Teachers might give students a list of the names of all of the students in their class. The students might look through this list and ask themselves, “Who do I talk to often? Who could I get to know more? Do I show every person on this list that they matter?” This activity connects well with the theme of the book and reminds students to support others in their world.

For more information, and to download a free activity kit, visit annakang.com, or download here.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How does Eraser’s feelings change throughout the book? What causes these changes?
  • How do the other school supplies act toward Eraser? Does this remind you of any instances in your life?
  • What is the message of the book? What does it teach us?

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Read This If You Loved: Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall; The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew DaywaltThat’s (Not) Mine by Anna KangYou Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang

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**Thank you to Barbara at Blue Slip Media for providing copies for review!**

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