Make ‘em Laugh – The Importance of Humour in YA LGBTQ Novels
Simon James Green studied law at Cambridge but the lure of writing and directing was too strong and he became an author and screenwriter. He has worked on many West End shows, including The Rocky Horror Show, Rent and West Side Story and also directed Hollyoaks for Lime Pictures / C4. He has co-written several screenplays (with Sarah Counsell), including Rules of Love, a feature-length musical rom-com for the BBC, which has since sold around the world. His debut novel, Noah Can’t Even was selected for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ‘Undiscovered Voices’ competition in 2016. Below, exclusively for Foyles in Pride month, Simon explains why it was important to him to write a funny YA LGBTQ novel, especially one dealing with the theme of coming-out.
I don’t think there’s a better way to build instant rapport with another person than by making them laugh. Having written that, I immediately see that I should have opened this post with a joke, and now you’re worried that I’m going to write a distinctly unfunny blog post about why I think being funny is important. Well, I don’t want to disappoint, so here’s a list of funny things: pants, bananas, someone stepping on a rake and it hitting them in the face, my love life. Had your fill? OK, let’s move on.
Actually, it’s not just me who thinks funny is important. In the Kids and Family Reading Report that Scholastic carried out in 2015, a huge 63% of kids and young people between 6-17 years wanted to read books that made them laugh. It turned out 55% of parents also wanted the same thing for their child. I get it. The books I loved growing up, generally speaking, were the funny ones. I loved The Liar by Stephen Fry and I devoured Sue Townsend’s work – especially Adrian Mole. Laughing is good for us. I’m pretty sure there’s a scientific study somewhere that says that. Something about endorphins, I don’t know. The point is, whether it’s a book, TV show, film, or hilarious YouTube video, it’s fun to laugh. It’s nice to laugh. It’s a great way to kick back and relax, to get away from a world that, quite often, can feel sad and worrisome.
When I was writing Noah Can’t Even, making it funny was my main priority. Awkwardness-based hilarity tends to be my default position anyway (in life, as much as writing style, alas), so it came fairly naturally, and I knew that a great way of getting readers to connect quickly and strongly with Noah, was to make him hilarious (albeit, unintentionally so). But researching the market, I was struck by the fact that, in YA at least, it didn’t feel like there were anywhere near enough funny books. Don’t get me wrong, there were certainly some, and some excellent ones at that, but not enough – and certainly not enough if that’s what 63% of teens out there wanted.
“But, wait!” I hear someone at the back with a hessian tote bag cry, “Growing up is miserable. Books must reflect that!” Well, yes, it often is. And whether you’re reading this having been through it, or whether you’re currently living it, we can probably all agree that our teenage years are often a delightful blend of humiliation, despair and drinking Martini and lemonade at a party because you thought it was a really cool drink but the older boys laughed at you and then you got drunk and everyone surrounded you in a circle, clapping and cheering, whilst you danced and gyrated in the middle, like you were some sort of performing monkey. I mean, it happened to us all, right? Hideous times. But I also remember laughing a lot as a teen. I even had a completely hilarious (and, I now see, totally egotistical) ‘comment’ column in the school newspaper, where I’d make witty and frequently offensive observations about school life. The young people I work with on a regular basis are also, frankly, hysterical. I mentor a 14 year-old boy through a children’s charity and let me tell you, he is hilarious. Best sense of humour ever. I steal all his best lines and pass them off as my own. It’s OK, I buy him ice cream and stuff, so he’s happy with the arrangement. So, yes, growing up can be hard. But it can also be brilliant and wondrous and disgustingly-snorting-snot-out-of-your-nose funny. So actually, I think it’s the perfect representation of the teen experience.
Noah Can’t Even explores LGBT themes, with Noah’s best mate, Harry, coming out as gay early in the book, and Noah himself questioning his sexuality after a rather long and unexpected kiss with Harry at a party. How many really funny YA LGBT books could I find? Not that many. How many really funny British YA LGBT books? Even fewer. There’s no doubt that LGBT kids often have a rough time of it – check out the Stonewall report if you’re in any doubt, it’s horrifying. But, with Noah Can’t Even, I really wanted to tell a coming out story that was full of humour, laughs and ultimate life-affirming positivity, because coming-out can be all those things too. That’s not in any way to diminish the very real struggles that LGBT teens face, it’s simply to say, ‘Things can sometimes be hurtful, scary and difficult, yes. But it’s not always like that, it gets better, and you’re not alone. And you deserve to be as happy as anyone else. You deserve to have a good time too. You deserve to laugh.’
There’s also a special trick you can do with funny books, which I love. You can break down those barriers, get your reader to connect with your characters, take them on that hilarious, fun, enjoyable ride… and then you blindside them with something sweet, or tender, or raw, just when they least expect it. And that’s where, if you’re lucky, you get to change hearts and minds. I think a lot of funny books gets dismissed as not being about anything important – as if the fact they make people laugh and actually enjoy reading them means they couldn’t possibly have anything of value to say about the world or our experience of it. But that’s just not true. The best funny books not only do just that, they do it in an incredibly effective way, delivering their message subtly, but with great power, letting the message emerge out of being funny and sad by turns, just like real life is.
Laughter should be encouraged. If we can learn to laugh at life when we’re young, I think it’s a good foundation for the future. Laughter takes the sting out of life’s harsher moments. It soothes. They say it’s the best medicine. I’d go further – it’s like oxygen, and you need it in your life regardless.