That’s awful! No, wait, that’s funny!

When I introduced Roald Dahl’s book, James and the Giant Peach, to my third grade guided reading group, we read the first page together. Now, it’s always a good idea to preview material before you start a lesson, but I’ll admit that sometimes I’m not as thorough as I’d like to be. I’d read the book a long time ago, but I guess I’d forgotten a few things. So, as my group of eight-year-olds followed along, I read to them about James:

“Then, one day, James’s mother and father went to London to do some shopping, and there a terrible thing happened. Both of them suddenly got eaten up (in full daylight, mind you, and on a crowded street) by an enormous angry rhinoceros which had escaped from the London Zoo.”

Oh, dear. I paused and looked at my students. James’s parents had been killed! They were now dead, leaving James an orphan! What a scary thought for eight-year-old children! The students shuffled their feet and squirmed a bit in their chairs, then they burst out laughing. “A rhinoceros!” they said. “That’s hilarious!” Huh. If you think about it, but not too hard, then I guess it is funny.

But what if James’s parents had died in a car crash? Or in a war? That wouldn’t have been funny at all and the fact that James is an orphan would give a whole different feel in the story. We feel sad for James, but maybe the rhinoceros image relieves us from the sorrow by keeping us from thinking too hard about it.

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, during a moment of terror, Mrs. Which eloquently says: “We mustn’t lose our senses of humor! The only way to cope with something deadly serious is to try to treat it a little lightly.”

A couple of years ago, my kids and I came across a family of four children whose parents had gone on vacation and put the house up for sale with the children still in it! No, we didn’t call social services, we laughed. The family was The Willoughbys, a book by Lois Lowry. But child psychology tells us that all kids’ biggest fear is being abandoned by their parents, so how could such a story leave us in hysterics? Could it be that it’s because the circumstances are so exaggerated that we’re able to remove ourselves from it and recognize that it could never happen?

Lemony Snicket is another author who tells a great story with this kind of dark humor in his Series of Unfortunate Events. And for kids who like juicy, gruesomeness, offer them A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz and The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children by Keith McGowen. These are good ol’ fairy re-tales that will scare the giggles out of most kids. If you’d like to read the spine-tingling descriptions of these books, just click on them.

Again, I ask, “Why do we laugh at such horrors?” And if you think you have an answer, I’d love to hear it in the comment section. But right now I’m thinking that maybe it doesn’t matter why. Author E. B. White once said, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

And now, to follow the thought of exposed frog innards, I leave you with a hilariously macabre ABC book, The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. Just click here if you dare  Gorey Alphabet and if you can figure out why it makes you laugh, let me know.

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Jennifer Duddy Gill is the author of The Secret of Ferrell Savage and Mary Vittles (Atheneum, 2014), a humorous middle-grade novel with a touch of gruesomeness.

Jennifer Duddy Gill