We are delighted that Pete Johnson, author of multi award-winning titles like The Ghost Dog and How to Train Your Parents is joining this year's Youth Libraries Group Conference to discuss funny books. Here he talks about some of the books that made him laugh as a child and continue to provide mirth and merriment. Which books made you laugh as a child and do they continue to do so today?
Writing this, I only have to look up, to see them massed across two shelves. Some are rather shabby and battered now, but they have travelled through time with me.
For these are my most treasured children’s books. The ones which cast such a spell, they made me a reader. And many of them are funny stories.
Now, if you’d come across me when I was eight or nine, I doubt if you’d have described me as fizzing with comic energy. I was a painfully shy, fearful boy. ‘Look at people when they’re speaking to you,’ my mum would say. But I found that very hard. I was much happier mumbling away to my shoes.
This at least, was the outward me. But as soon as I could escape the tyranny of what other people called ‘real life’ I was off travelling the countryside with my irrepressible alter ego, William Brown.
One night while reading a William book I caused my parents to come tearing up the stairs. They’d heard a noise. What had happened? It was very simple. I’d been laughing so hard at William and the Princess Goldilocks (from William the Pirate) I’d fallen out of bed. My parents were so pleased to see me smiling and free from my usual anxiety they didn’t say a word. In fact, they helped me buy all thirty eight of the Just William books by Richmal Crompton. William’s anarchic spirit called up something in me, as well as his optimism and resilience and sense of purpose.
I collected every one of the Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge too. He was similarly bold and impetuous, never deliberately causing trouble but still leaving a hilarious trail of accidents and disasters. The moment when Jennings accidentally stuck his head in the railings, while attemping to photograph a squirrel never failed to make me fall about helplessly.
I re-read the William and Jennings stories over and over, marvelling not only at the brilliant characters but the witty dialogue and careful way they were structured. I suppose I was starting to analyse them.
But mainly, I was a boy who, left to his own devices, could swiftly fill his head with gloomy thoughts. In fact, I could depress myself in seconds. And there was only one antidote.
Another book which always lifted my spirits was Holiday at the Dew Drop Inn, by Eve Garnett. Here, my favourite character from the One End Street books – Kate Ruggles – spends two glorious months in the country. Now Kate was more than a bit like me – earnest, bookish, eager not to give offence. The book’s humorous tone, gently mocks Kate’s endless worrying and anxiousness and I suppose in laughing at Kate I was also beginning to laugh at myself.
Anyway, I finally started to become more confident. My secret self, so far hidden from everyone but my fictional friends began to shakily emerge. There were even moments when I’d been glimpsed looking cheerful, happy even. But then – disaster.
When I was twelve we moved away. And I was plunged into a new school, at which I felt instantly out of place. Soon a horrible cloud of misery settled over me and clung to me unceasingly every day. I’d never felt more isolated.
But at my lowest point help, once more, was at hand. I came across an Armada paperback. (Hands up who remembers Armada books?) called Mike and Psmith by P.G Wodehouse. The cover featured a boy in cricket whites and another reclining in a chair – wearing of all things, a monocle. It didn’t appeal to me at all. I nearly stopped there. But standing in the bookshop I read the first page. That was enough. I was hooked. I sat up half the night finishing it.
There was something to make me laugh on every page. But best of all there was the author’s beguiling voice. And long after I’d put the book down, I still had this big smile on my face. Next day I tore to the library to see what else P.G.Wodehouse had written. And there was a shelf and a half of Wodehouse treasures. So began a golden chapter in my life. Whenever I was feeling down I reached for Wodehouse or Edward Eager.
Eager is best known for Half Magic, a wonderfully inventive and funny book about a magic coin, which makes wishes come half true! This became a favourite escape read.
Shortly afterwards, I discovered several other hardback Edward Eager books for sale at my local library – 20p each. I bought all six of them. I’ve never made a better deal. The books captivated me and especially Seven Day Magic, which has a great central idea: library books are magic. Soon this book is taking the characters to their favourite fictional worlds.
As with Wodehouse, it was Edward Eager’s voice – wry, quizzical, often dryly humorous – which especially delighted me. And that’s why I wrote to him c/o his publishers to say how brilliant and brilliantly funny his books were and ask what else had he written as I was extremely keen to read them. I knew he lived in America, so I expected a bit of a wait for a reply.
But, in fact, it came almost by return of post. It was from his publisher to thank me for my enthusiastic appreciation – but to tell me., Edward Eager had died back in 1963 (at the age of just 52 of lung cancer, I later discovered) and the seven books I mentioned were the only ones he’d written.
I felt as if I’d lost a friend. And a friend who’d helped me get past the towering misfortune of having to change schools.
That’s why books which make you laugh are so special. They are the ones which reach right out to you. They go on doing that for me today. I only have to open any of these titles at random and within a very few pages I am laughing out loud. And there’s a rush of joy as they cast their spell all over again.