The Reckoning: Fighting reluctance with humour

Chances are if you’ve had a young reader in your life in the past decade or so, you’ll have a Dawn McMillan book or two somewhere on your bookshelves. Does I Need A New Bum! ring any bells? Or perhaps Why Do Dogs Sniff Bottoms? was a firm favourite? Dawn’s books always manage to hit the bullseye when it comes to humour that gets book-wary kids on board, and in this instalment of The Reckoning, she hops on a carefully considered soapbox to talk about those kids and connecting with them.

Dawn (right) signing one of her books

Choosing one soapbox to stand on is a challenge for me. I think I’d like multiple boxes.

From one, I could speak about the environment. The horror of our seas filled with plastics, of all pollution, of climate change and drowning polar bears; my worry for our planet or my obsession with picking up litter.

From another, I could speak against animal cruelty—and people cruelty—inequality, oppression, wars, all that stands against love.

And from yet another, my passion for family, my gratitude for the generations before me, my hopes for those who follow.

But today I’ll talk about children. As a teacher, I stood on my soapbox to shout out about trying to fit children into boxes, success or failure, measured against a set of criteria that may or may not be relevant for them. I believe that children are unique treasures with individual thoughts and processes, and that we all learn differently. Even as an adult it’s very uncomfortable to be trying to decode something that makes sense to everyone else but you. So I’m for encouraging children to learn in ways that make sense to them.

As a teacher, I stood on my soapbox to shout out about trying to fit children into boxes, success or failure…

An ongoing concern has been reluctant readers, many of whom were, and no doubt still are, the boys. So—the importance of having boys’ reading material, boys as characters. Now there seems to be a swing towards the need for more girl characters and, of course more diversity. This is certainly important. But in my work I still feel the need to cheer for the boys.

As I write I’m often speaking as an 8-year-old boy; not so surprising because at eight, I emerged from a long illness, a life spent indoors, to become a farm tomboy, and I was intrigued with the outdoor world that I found. Couple this with a great relationship with my dad and the fun we had with our silly nonsense humour and the result is that titles like Why Do Dogs Sniff Bottoms?, Doctor Grundy’s Undies, and the New Bum! series have emerged.

At eight, I emerged from a long illness, a life spent indoors, to become a farm tomboy, and I was intrigued with the outdoor world that I found.

I have had amazing feedback from families where their boys have decided that with crazy stories like mine, reading is a good idea after all. The Bum books have fans from many parts of the world. And the blessing is that the fun has overflowed to the other members of the families too. Lots of wonderful photos and emails come my way, from dads and mums to grans and uncles, all so excited to be having fun with their children.

Of course there’s the other side of the picture. Hate mail? Well, nothing quite as strong as that, but there is definitely disapproval from certain quarters. I always reply to the occasional disapproving letters that I receive, acknowledging that the title may not to be to the letter writer’s taste and offering them a complimentary copy of Woolly Wally, which is about love and acceptance, or perhaps Holy Socks, a story of ongoing and precious love. As yet I have never had a reply or anyone accepting my offer.

Hate mail? Well, nothing quite as strong as that but there is definitely disapproval from certain quarters.

A word about rhyme. It’s never been a conscious decision but so far I’ve exclusively used rhyme combined with humour. I write rhyme because it is fun, but it also works in its own right for the children who find reading a challenge. Rhyme is full of reading clues—language patterns, phonics, prediction skills, and with zany images from clever illustrators, rhyme, and humour combine to give the reader a ‘leg-up’ to success. But perhaps the success starts with the adults who buy and share the books. As adults I think we all need a bit of rhythm and rhyme.

Humour is a coping mechanism for a myriad of tricky situations. Humour is healing: it’s a release of tension. It’s a useful sidestep around confrontation. By this I mean gentle, kind humour, not sarcasm, which I don’t in any way consider amusing.

Humour is healing: it’s a release of tension.

And so we have characters like Doctor Grundy who carelessly loses his best undies to the wind, Mister Spears who has incredibly hairy ears, Charlie who tells the most amazing tales, the naughty New Zealand birds creating havoc in Nan’s kitchen in There’s a Tui in our Teapot/He Tūī kei rō Tīpata...

And now Sir Singlet, who wins a war with his skills for sewing and knitting. Sir Singlet is ‘different’ and that’s just fine! I believe it is so important for children to know that being ‘different’ is okay. I’d like to see book stores make a feature of ‘It’s okay to be different’ titles. Being confident in one’s self is not easy. Sir Singlet does what he does best, his passion, and his uniqueness saves a kingdom.

Covers of Dawn’s latest books: Sir Singlet and There’s a Weta on my Sweater

But back to one of my original soapboxes—the one from which to speak of love. My career started with Sea Secrets, the precious connection between a grandmother and a grandaughter. And following that came The Harmonica with its strong spritual component; the favourite Colour the Stars/Taea Ngā Whetū; Home Child, which tells of heartbreak and courage. And more…

I could build a tower with my soapboxes. There’s so much more to say in stories.

Editors’ note: The Reckoning is a regular column where children’s literature experts air their thoughts, views and grievances. They’re not necessarily the views of the editors or our readers. We would love to hear your response to any of The Reckonings – join in the discussion over on Facebook. 

Dawn McMillan
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Former teacher Dawn McMillan is an internationally recognised writer of children’s books who lives north of Thames on the Coromandel Peninsula. Her books have been translated into at least five languages and her BUM series titles have become bestsellers in the US and United Kingdom, as well as New Zealand. Her latest picture book, Sir Singlet, publishes this month and will be followed in November by the next in her billingual nature-related picture book series, There’s a Weta on my Sweater. Both are published by Oratia Books.