May 30, 2012

Julia here and I’ve been working hard on the Greenhouse UK Funny Prize. We’re loving the response. Do keep spreading the word on your forums and writing groups. It’s been so helpful and shown us that there is a lot of goodwill towards this fighty, little/big Greenhouse.
I’d like to introduce you to Leah Thaxton, my co-judge on the Greenhouse Funny Prize and Egmont UK Publishing Director.

Leah spotted MR GUM author, Andy Stanton, who is just brilliant and one of the funniest children’s book writers ever. She’s also responsible for the launch of Jelly Pie, Egmont’s humour imprint and she’s publishing I AM NOT A LOSER by Jim Smith this June, which is tipped to be the new big funny series. She couldn’t be a better co-judge for funny.

As payment for the job I offered her a 30 second exclusive window on all manuscripts I send out as a result of the Funny Prize, so she wins too.

So Leah, what books made you laugh as a child?

That’s a surprisingly hard question! Roald Dahl, of course, ANT AND BEE, Edward Lear’s nonsense verse…. but I don’t remember having shelves and shelves of funny books. Lots of things did make me laugh – Scooby Doo, water fights, running under sprinklers, the jelly game, wave jumping, hiccups…

It’s been interesting though, I’ve found it hard to remember what made me laugh as a child, I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why adults find it so hard to write ‘funny’ for children…. Do we superimpose our adult sensibilities on what is funny? Happily, I think there has never been more humour written for children than now. It’s a golden era.

What do you hope to see in the Greenhouse Funny Prize?

I’m looking for a strong new voice that knows itself inside and out and confidently walks the reader through a story. Often new writers try to make every line hilarious, every situation outlandish, and I think that, ultimately, this is exhausting for the reader. To my mind, the best humorous books vary the pace, and surprise you. They might not be laugh a minute, but they are indisputably great fun and they leave both child and parent feeling good about life – and seeing the world through rainbow-coloured glasses!

What are your thoughts about the judging?

I hope we see a great variety of humour – from slapstick to the understated and deadpan … I hope it’s going to be difficult and we’ll be spoilt for choice. That would be a dream.

Judgement Day, I’m thinking we need to be somewhere intrinsically funny to get us in the mood … Top of the Gherkin? A dugout at Wetlands Wildlife Centre? Barry Island? Picnic on Battersea Bandstand?

I think some advice to writers submitting work would be great. What wise words can you share?

I’d say, don’t try too hard and know your own voice and work on that! There’s no need to try to imitate someone else. Often a good starting point is taking an extraordinary character and putting them in a very ordinary situation. But most of all, have fun with it – if it doesn’t make you laugh, then something has gone wrong already! A glass of wine often helps!

Can you talk us through the judging process?

Judging is a going to be a serious business! We will need to whittle down entries to a shortlist of 8 and then battle it out between us. It might be that there is an obvious winner – but perhaps not! Taste obviously comes into it – humour can be such a personal thing. That said, when you’re judging humour for children, there are a few more criteria that come into it than if you’re rating a TV comedian over your Saturday night takeaway. For starters, will children understand the humour? Is there a match between language and complexity of ideas? Will those puns resonate for that age group? Is there a certain degree of inventiveness and devil may care?

In some ways, I don’t think the judging process will be all that different from our day job – the difference is that (hopefully!) all the scripts will be funny! I think it will be a fun day.

If you find a book you love, how are you going to claw it from Julia’s fingers?

Waterpistol, chopsticks, slight of hand, my teeth … I’ve got a thirty second window and height to my advantage too. At the end of the day though, the bond an editor has with their author is a very special and personal one, which is why pitching for books is both nervewracking and the most envigorating thing that goes on at a publishing house. So for example, if Andy and I hadn’t got on and I didn’t share his sense of humour, I’m not sure I could ever have published his books. And I reluctantly have to respect the fact that Julia needs to place every script she takes on with the best editor she can find for that particular script, even if I do want them all to be MINE.

What made you go for the big funny books you’ve acquired in the past?

I need to fall in love with a script to want to take it on. With MR GUM, I knew it would be a diamond dazzler from the very first page. And even though Andy hadn’t actually completed it in full, it had all the hallmarks of a work of genius: it was its own thing, it was confident and a little bit cheeky. There was a cast of characters to die for, the story had heart and soul. Oh and then there was the wordplay, the madcap plot… I AM NOT A LOSER by Jim Smith is sensational in a very different way – understated, zany, dreamily loopy. I think little boys will go mad for it. And that’s what lies at the heart of all my decision-making – will kids go crazy for it, will they tell their friends.

So you’ve just started Jelly Pie. What drove you to do this?

I think it’s massively important to feed children’s appetite for fun. Egmont is particularly good at publishing humour, we have had great success with it in the past, and this is our way of telling the world we’re very serious about it! When we first launched Mr Gum, people in the industry started talking about humour as a new genre, but I don’t think that’s true, I think children have always wanted to laugh. So in fact it seemed strange that no one had ever launched a humour imprint before… I say let’s have more of it! Bring on the Funny!

Thanks Leah. I’m already starting to see entries in the mailbox. Can’t wait for the judging.

Writers, if you’re in the UK or Ireland, unagented and working on a funny book for children, we’d love to hear from you. Click here for more details on the prize. I’d love a thousand submissions, more, so anything you can do to spread the word to your writing buddies would be wonderful. ツ