Author Swapna Haddow has recently moved to Christchurch from her home in the UK. Her Dave Pigeon books are absolutely hilarious, so we asked her to tell us a bit about the funny books of her childhood. From Sweet Valley, to Roald Dahl, to Sue Townsend’s incredible Adrian Mole books, it is a trip down memory lane.
I started this piece thinking I was going to get on my soapbox and shout about how funny books aren’t taken seriously, how they fail to get recognition in awards and in the industry, how it’s funny books that so often engage the most reluctant of readers and keep them reading, how funny can be a safe place for children to understand their own emotions, to provide them refuge from the madness of the world, let them laugh, let us all laugh, and laugh together, how laughing is such a powerful way to unite us and how snobbery about funny books grinds my gears.
There are stats to back this up (apart from that last one about the grinding of gears; that’s been backed up by anyone who knows me and has seen me flare my nostrils and roll my eyes).
So when The Sapling asked me to think about the books that formed my childhood and what got me writing what I write now, I started to look beyond the statistics.
Books have always been an escape for me. And none more so than funny books. It wasn’t just slapstick that had me laughing. Gentle humour, witty humour, dark humour, basically all the humours had me chortling. I still remember the first time I laughed so hard whilst reading I rolled out of bed: it was a quick whip from that sharp-tongued Lila in a Sweet Valley book. (Yes, that’s right. I read Sweet Valley. Every single one of them and I don’t care who knows it.)
I still remember the first time I laughed so hard whilst reading I rolled out of bed: it was a quick whip from that sharp-tongued Lila in a Sweet Valley book.
Things weren’t always easy at home during my childhood. And it wasn’t particularly pleasant being one of the few brown faces in a white school in the 80s and 90s, but somehow when my mother dropped my sisters and me off at the library, all that would fade to nothing. There was no judgement as I slipped into friendships and ran away on adventures between the pages.
It was the Roald Dahl books that captured my imagination the most. He took the dark and turned it on its head with humour. I related more to his characters than any other’s. Amidst the chaos of my childhood, I felt deeply connected to James’ trauma, Matilda’s frustration and Muggle-Wump’s sense of justice. Oddly, Roald Dahl’s macabre world was a safe space for me to question the things going on in my own life. His humour invited me in. I had a place to laugh. It was OK to laugh in these safe spaces and I got through so much with laughter. This is why it’s so important that humour is central to the books I write.
Amidst the chaos of my childhood, I felt deeply connected to James’ trauma, Matilda’s frustration and Muggle-Wump’s sense of justice.
Roald Dahl was a gateway book to so much more humour. I went on to read Adrian Mole, and by that time I had the good sense to throw a spare duvet down to land on when I rolled out of bed with laughing, again. I discovered puberty and love with Judy Blume, subjects far too taboo to discuss in our Indian household. Her humour pulled me into the pages and her characters were so genuine that many of her novels guided me through those teen years.
Reflecting on my own books, I think there will always be a little bit of that brusque Lila, the virtuous Muggle-Wump and unreliable narrator of Townsend’s Mole in Dave Pigeon because those were the characters I connected with throughout my childhood.
The clever thing about humour and laughing is that it is so uniting. It can give you that instant connection with a character and so importantly co-readers. This is what kept me reading and discovering new books. And I think, ultimately, this is why I love writing humour. I will never tire of letters from families and teachers telling me how much they have laughed, with their children, whilst reading the Dave Pigeon series.
The clever thing about humour and laughing is that it is so uniting.
I’m raising my own little reader at the moment. He’s eight, and the bond we’ve shared over reading funny books together, laughing so hard we’ve both wet our pants whilst rolling off the bed, is priceless. It’s seriously time to reward and recognise those who create these incredible moments.
Swapna Haddow, who also writes as Swapna Reddy, is the award-winning children’s author of the Dave Pigeon books. She loves writing about boisterous animals and madcap adventures and is working with Faber & Faber, Macmillan, Oxford University Press and Scholastic to bring stories to young readers around the world.
Swapna lives in New Zealand with her husband, son and their dog, Archie. When she’s not writing she is usually reading, dreaming about living on a boat or eating Jaffa Cakes.