Poet and novelist Michael Rosen has spoken out about the vital importance of humorous literature for children after announcing that the book award he founded seven years ago, the Roald Dahl Funny prize, is being closed down.
Former childrenâ€™s laureate Rosen tweeted yesterday evening (22 September): â€œThis is a formal announcement: the Roald Dahl Funny prize is no more. It is deceased. Gone before. It is a late prize. Not funny any more.â€ He told the Guardian this morning that the Dahl familyâ€™s plans â€œdid not include the Funny prizeâ€ any longer, and that the charity Book Trust had also decided not to continue running the award.
The prize had previously been placed â€œon pauseâ€, with plans to relaunch it next year, but Rosen said it had now been decided that there was â€œno roomâ€ for the prize. The Dahl estateâ€™s managing director, Luke Kelly, told The Bookseller that the prize would not be awarded again because it does not fit in with plans for celebrations around Dahlâ€™s centenary next year, and that the estate would be focusing on a new childrenâ€™s book prize to be launched in the US. â€œThe Roald Dahl Funny prize has served its purpose brilliantly,â€ Kelly told the magazine.
Rosen set up the award in 2008 when he was childrenâ€™s laureate, â€œbecause funny books often get overlooked when it comes to prizesâ€. Won by writers from Andy Stanton to Louise Rennison and Liz Pichon, it is beloved by childrenâ€™s authors and booksellers, who were mourning its demise this morning.
â€œNever has there been a more important time to champion the funny. In a world of turmoil, a chance for children to lose themselves in chuckle-packed pages is a valuable thing,â€ former winner Philip Ardagh, who took the prize with Jim Paillot in 2009, for Grubtown Tales: Stinking Rich and Just Plain Stinky, said on Wednesday .
â€œSometimes, humour is a great way to entice more reluctant readers to pick up a book, too. Whatâ€™s more â€“ and donâ€™t tell anyone â€“ funny books can tackle serious issues. To offer a prize for such books â€“ which are nearly ALWAYS ignored by the other book prizes â€“ gives them value, worth and helps to spread the word. The Roald Dahl Funny prize was great, but we mustnâ€™t waste any time looking for a successor,â€ Ardagh added.
Rosen, who is also professor of childrenâ€™s literature at Goldsmithâ€™s University, where he gave his first lecture on humour in childrenâ€™s books, said he was now planning to set up an event celebrating funny books, which would also look at how to get the award up and running again. â€œThe issue with prizes is money â€“ you need a sponsor, and a secretariat to run the thing,â€ said Rosen. â€œSo the event is now my plan, and if by chance off the back of it some friendly sponsor comes along, Iâ€™ll be up for it.â€
The bestselling writer stressed the importance of funny literature in getting children reading. â€œWe keep talking about â€˜reading for pleasureâ€™ â€“ itâ€™s almost official government policy … A substantial part of that for young children is reading funny books … Theyâ€™re a bridge to enable children to be confident with the written word,â€ he said.
According to Rosen, â€œwe rarely talk about laughter. Weâ€™re northern Europeans â€“ we shouldnâ€™t laugh too much unless we fart. There is a reserve. And there are worries about children laughing hysterically, because theyâ€™re â€˜out of controlâ€™.â€
But, he said, â€œhumour through literature is an excellent way to release energies we haveâ€, and â€œlots of humour relies on subversive ideasâ€, with Dav Pilkeyâ€™s Captain Underpants titles â€œsubverting education quite a lot â€“ thereâ€™s a headteacher running around in his underpants looking like a babyâ€.
Rosen also pointed to Dahlâ€™s The Twits. â€œTheyâ€™re totally out of control â€“ itâ€™s a parody of married life. Dahl was looking at the world of adults, through a childâ€™s viewpoint, without any children being there. Itâ€™s a very, very cunning book about adult life getting out of control,â€ he said.
â€œObviously there are a lot of rewards for writing serious, clever, powerful books, and Iâ€™m all for that. But we donâ€™t give equal weight to Captain Underpants, Liz Pichon or The Twits. Weâ€™re saying these are funny books, that are also saying profound things about the world, through cackling.â€
Booktrust chief executive Diana Gerald said this morning that â€œin the current financial climate it has been difficult to secure funding that would enable us to sustain the Roald Dahl Funny Prize but we are eager to continue to recognise the enormous contribution funny books make to childrenâ€™s enjoyment of reading, and we will endeavour to look for new sources of funding to enable us to celebrate these important books.â€
She added that the charity was â€œpassionate about funny booksâ€. â€œThey are fantastic at getting even the most reluctant children to read and we feature them frequently in our recommended reads.â€
Childrenâ€™s books expert Fiona Noble called the decision â€œreally sad newsâ€, saying that â€œfunny books are so important to children, and this was the one UK prize that celebrated thatâ€.
â€œLook at any childrenâ€™s bestseller chart and it will be dominated by funny books, from Julia Donaldson to David Walliams and Holly Smale. Only last week, 63% of the children surveyed by the Scholastic Reading Report said that â€˜a book to make me laughâ€™ was what they most looked for when selecting titles. And yet funny books are seldom recognised by the other big childrenâ€™s awards, which is why the Roald Dahl Funny Prize was so precious,â€ said Noble. â€œThe volume of childrenâ€™s books published today can be overwhelming, and award shortlists are a really useful tool for parents, teachers and librarians. In just a few years, the Dahl Prize made a huge impact. Letâ€™s hope a new sponsor can be found.â€