What's So Funny? By Pippa Goodhart


            I’ve been thinking about what makes a funny picture book funny.

            Lots of things can be funny for young children, and funny for the adults who share picture books with them. Those two sides of the book audience might well laugh at different things offered by the book. 

Getting things wrong can be funny if the circumstances are right. A woman slipping on a banana skin, falling into the pond, then coming up from the water with a duck and weed on her head is funny … just so long as we know that she is somebody fictional who can’t really be hurt, or she is somebody nasty who deserves to be made to look silly, or she’s laughing at herself because she thinks it’s funny. 

Farts, pants and burps can be funny because children know they are regarded as naughty, something to be hidden, and so it seems daring and a bit shocking to air them in public. I suggest that those themes are funnier when you’re four years old than when you’re forty … although seeing a child collapse in giggles at the word ‘fart’ can make the whole book sharing situation for the adult reader funny in itself. 

But I think I’ve discovered what makes for the funniest picture books of all, and that is TRUTH. Not factual story truth. I’m struggling to think of an example of a really really funny picture book which features human main characters, or one that tells of true events. But it’s the emotional truth that matters. The animal characters in funny books are behaving at an emotional level like humans. We recognise that, and it all seems the funnier for human feelings to be played out by animals.

Here are my three-year-old grandson’s current favourite funny picture books –


Oh No, George! By Chris Haughton features dog George who promises his human, Harris, that he will be good, and he does mean to be good, but he is then faced with temptation. Three times we see him tempted, and we’re asked ‘What will George do?’ before seeing that he does eat the cake, chase the cat, then dig up a plant. Tension thrills as George’s owner arrives home! But Harris is forgiving, and George apologises, and out they go for a walk to start afresh. But temptations arise once more. What will George do? To our surprise, he resists the cake this time, and the cat, and the flower bed. But then he is faced with a smelly rubbish bin …


… And we’re left to decide for ourselves whether or not George succumbs! 

Very relatable for a three-year-old who says he’ll be quiet in the library, then can’t resist shouting out loud, getting a reaction, and shouting more. Relatable, too, for a Granny who knows she shouldn’t have that chocolate biscuit, but … What will Granny do? This story is so true to the fight between good intentions and weakness in most of us.


Oi Frog! by Kes Gray and Jim Field has been followed by more Oi books, and it’s no wonder. The humour here comes from a character, the cat, who insists on a rule that sounds almost reasonable at first – that frogs should sit on logs – but soon becomes more and more ridiculous. Not only do gophers have to sit on sofas and mules sit on stools, but lions must sit on irons and seals sit on wheels!  


How does this growing list of rule-following nonsense end? If you don’t know the book, go and borrow or buy it. Its punchline fits perfectly. 



Old Hat by Emily Gravett is a delight of colourful fun that takes us on an emotional journey. It’s a study of the power of fashion, and it bursts that power with the most pleasing of surprises. Harbet has a hat that he loves, knitted by his Nan, warm and toasty, but … ‘OLD HAT’ jeer a trio of others. 


So Harbet hurries to acquire his own fruity confection of a hat … only to find that fashion has moved on.


Repeat, and repeat again, the hats getting more weird and wonderful as we go … until Harbet is so fed up with never being able to keep up with fashion that he gives up, and throws away all his hats to reveal his natural delightful explosion of feathery head adornment. Now the tables are turned.



A lesson in the folly of trying to follow fashion. Its recognising the truth of that which makes this story particularly funny. 

I think that it’s the combination of surprise and fun with recognition of truth that makes for the funniest picture book stories. But do tell in the comments what you find funniest in picture books. 

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