Kids and Ironic Humor

Years ago I wrote an article, “Pets and Other Fishy Books” in which I took a look at kids’ reactions to subversive books. Among others I wrote about my class’s response to Chris Raschka’s Arlene Sardine:

Most unexpected to me was their reaction to Chris Raschka’s Arlene Sardine. Assuming it was another piscatorial preschool book along the lines of Swimmy or Rainbow Fish, I quickly touched upon and then skipped right past it at the bookstore. It was only when I heard that it was something quite different, ironic perhaps, that I returned for a proper look. Any book whose protagonist dies midway through would be considered unusual; a children’s book where the dead protagonist’s journey continues for fifteen more pages until she achieves her heart’s desire is unique. At first glance Arlene Sardine seems similar to other books in the subversive species. “Easy-open book” and “NET WT. 12 OZ.” are printed right there on the cover, a quick reference to every can a sardine-eater has ever opened. While child readers may be unfamiliar with sardines, the story evokes for child and adult alike many a tale of fortitude. Just like The Little Engine That Could (or Ulysses, for that matter) the little fish Arlene single-mindedly (inasmuch as a fish, and a dead one at that, would have a mind) achieves her ultimate goal. To be a sardine.

I loved Arlene Sardine. What could be more subversive than taking on death, after all? I showed it to adult friends who also liked it, but we all wondered whether it was a book for children. Did they know enough about sardines, about personal growth books, or about death to get it? How developed was their sense of irony? I heard testimonials of successful readings with children. Some found it hilarious, others were saddened by Arlene’s death, and one group of fifteen-year-olds decided it was a book about suicide. Yet I was reluctant to use it with my own students. I knew them well, after all; I had watched them react to all kinds of books, many that were unusual, subtle, that demanded more of them than did the average children’s book. Yet Arlene Sardine seemed so deadpan, so dry; much more so than Squids Will Be Squids. I was afraid; I liked Arlene Sardine too much to have it flop with them. For some time the book sat on my desk at school while I tried to decide whether or not to read it to my class. Finally, my curiosity won out, and I convened a Chris Raschka week, ending with Arlene Sardine.

When I finished reading there was silence; not a giggle broke the total quiet. But looking around, I realized the silence was not one of sorrow. My students looked blank, confused. I waited in vain for a raised hand, a blurted-out comment, anything. They’d had plenty to say about Raschka’s other books: sympathetically murmuring during my reading of Yo? Yes!, swaying to the sounds ofCharlie Parker Played Be Bop, intently scrutinizing the structure of Mysterious Thelonious, and singing along with Simple Gifts. But now, nothing. Finally, as the silence stretched out and the children became restless, I asked if they had anything to say. No. Evidently they did not. When two boys began rolling around the floor completely uninterested, I gave up; these were usually very opinionated children and I saw no point in forcing them to speak about Arlene Sardine if they didn’t want to.

Looking back, I have to wonder if this was a mismatch between book and age level. While others seemed to get something out of Arlene Sardine, my nine-and ten-year-old students were just confused. They had no idea how to react. Were they supposed to laugh? Somehow that didn’t seem right for a book where the main character dies. Were they supposed to cry? Yet the book seemed so bright, so happy, that somehow that didn’t seem right either. Caught between two competing responses, this group of children opted for none. Arlene Sardine was a club that they didn’t want to join.

Fast forward to 2013 when I revisited the book and then to this week. My 4th grade class had gotten such a kick out the ending to Cece Bell’s I Yam a Donkey that I thought they might appreciate the dark humor of Arlene Sardine. It turns out I was right. To a child the class burst out laughing when — spoiler! — Arlene expired midway through the book. And so today I went on with one more such book, Tadpole’s Promise. Again — guffaws and laughter — it was another hit.

I am actually so curious about this. Is it just this group of kids (as I thought years ago when first trying Arlene Sardine out on various groups)? Or are they already far more familiar with this sort of humor in their books?  I have no clue other than to suggest all three of these as subversive and extremely fun read-alouds for the right group of kids.

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One response to “Kids and Ironic Humor

  1. This sure brings back memories! It is wonderful to see you revisiting Arlene Sardine. I, too, wonder what has changed: the kids, our culture, or even you? I also loved Mysterious Thelonious — I can’t remember how the kids responded, but most adults dismissed it out-right. Both of these books still fascinate me.


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