writing funny and more…

“Maybe you can help my cellmate, Mineola Potts. She’s such a nice lady.”
“What’s she in for?”
“Jaywalking.”  …
“Was she really arrested for jaywalking?” Tony asked.
“Indeed she was, poor woman,” Mrs. Carillon replied. “She was very hungry and had nothing to eat, so she borrowed two cans of lobster meat and a tin of caviar from the supermarket. She was jaywalking when the police stopped her.”

Ellen Raskin, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I mean Noel)

Funny is hard. I read this. I blinked and I started to giggle. then laugh. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t explain it. And, I doubt if I can replicate it. It’s not as funny now as it was when I first read it. It was very awesome feeling. A giggle just bubbling out of you. A giggle you just can’t stop. A giggle that builds into a full-blown laugh.

I think this is dynamite and tough. This laugh-out-loud line came at page sixty-something. Well into the story and I was surprised to find it there. A delightful tidbit for me, the reader.

Today, funny seems to be based on a ‘sound bite’ type of humor. The one liners. Sort of vaudevillian, if you will. Funny today in a book, movie or on TV is a one-liner, and you can almost hear the drum in the orchestra pit, ba-dum-bum-CHING.

It’s what we see on the Disney channel. Small people [it’s hard to call them kids they are so sophisticated!] making statements [we would have called them chops/a disparaging statement, a put-down] And then, the laugh-track, the new version of the drum in the orchestra pit :), which tells us that it’s funny. Although, if we thought about it, we might wish we were the one making the statement rather than the one who is on the receiving end.

Ellen Raskin is an writes funny and interesting.  She won a Newberry Honor for Figgs & Phantoms, in 1975 and the Newberry Medal in 1979 for The Westing Game. When my oldest was in fifth grade, The Westing Game was the trade book all 5th graders read. I had not, so, I did. And, when the topic came up again recently, I realized I could not remember the ending, so I found my daughter’s boxes of books stacked in the attic. The mystery is well developed, as are the characters. And when I finished the ending, I realized why I couldn’t remember it. It wasn’t that the book didn’t have a good ending, what it has was a very complete ending. I wanted to know more about Ellen. So via Amazon I purchased the three mentioned in this post, plus The Tattooed Potato and other clues. All have a mystery elements, word plays, and eccentric characters.

Ellen Raskin wrote for a different time. A time before instant communication, a time before ‘friending’ became a verb. She wrote when you could take 20 pages to set up the story. When backstory was part of the plot. When an ending ended it for all the characters. [Think the  last book of Harry Potter. We find out who married who and where all our favorite characters end up.]

I’ve gone back and read the first [supposedly] mystery book ever written, The Moonstone. Published in 1868 it is long, convoluted, melodramatic. Books are different now. Readers are different. Not good. Not bad. Just different. And we as writers need to know what came before us.

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