09 June 2007

What's So Funny in Ellie McDoodle

Ruth McNally Barshaw's Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel is a fun example of a new genre which we'd call "graphic novel" if only status-conscious comic books hadn't already grabbed that moniker.

Like Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which started out here on FunBrain), this first Ellie McDoodle story combines art and text, word balloons and narrative prose. The deceptively simple artwork doesn't simply illustrate the story, nor is the text simply explanatory captioning for the art. The drawings and text are inseparable, and they add up to an artistic young narrator's "voice."

Ruth unknowingly developed this genre while attending SCBWI conferences to study the picture-book form. She documented those events, as she'd recorded other trips in her life, in her sketchbooks. (At the last meeting she even recorded a meeting with me.) Then an editor saw those online sketchbooks, and invited her to create a novel for young readers in that form.

In addition to its story and a perhaps-unnecessary "Things I've Learned" at the end, this first Ellie McDoodle story contains about a dozen car and camp games that should keep kids happy even after they catch onto how there are no prizes in the Quiet Contest.

The Institute of Children's Literature just posted an interview with Ruth. It nominally focuses on humor, particularly how kids and adults often differ on what's funny, and authors and publishers always do. Would you be surprised that a publisher with the oh-so-literary name Bloomsbury edited out with fart jokes?

Ruth's observations on what sorts of jokes different kids like:

Body humor is still funny to boys that age [ages 10-13]. Double entendres and dirty jokes. Boys that age are sort of in between the potty humor of little kids and the potty humor of adult men. As compared to girls, well, girls think some of that stuff is funny, at that age, but they're likely to be embarrassed by some of it, whereas the boys just think it's hilarious.

jitterbug: What is humorous for girls?

Ruth: Embarrassment humor, they still like potty jokes and fart humor, but are sometimes more covert about it, word play, sarcasm... you name it. I'm not sure there's a huge difference in what boys and girls find funny. My book is aimed at girls but boys have told me they think it's very funny. Gross out humor is universal. ;)

Jan: A lot of girl humor is relationship oriented too...so part of the humor is the response to it in the group.

Ruth: yes, very good point, Jan! and boys play to an audience, though sometimes girls do also.
Ruth also says of her own kids, "they argue over who is the inspiration for Ellie." And here I'd thought Ruth herself fit that bill. There are several points of similarity. Both she and Ellie are talented cartoonists who travel with their sketchbooks. In fact, Ruth told the ICL, "The first trip I have recorded is a camping trip with my family." And both have a Mc____ surname.

And then there are the details that hint that this story actually occurs a generation ago:
  • The favorite song of Ellie’s Dad is "High Hopes," which was on the hit parade in 1959.
  • Ellie's annoying cousin Eric (as opposed to her annoying cousins Deanna and Tiffany) wears a fedora.
  • None of the kids or adults on the trip has a cell phone, GameBoy, or iPod.
Ruth's most recent camping sketchbook documents such devices in the wild today. (It may be easier to read this sketchbook from the beginning through the Ellie McDoodle blog.)

Yes, Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen, Will Travel also has some way-we-live-now touches, mostly new labels for things that have been around a while: a graphic novel instead of a comic book, a souvenir water bottle instead of a canteen, camouflage cargo pants instead of, well, pants.

The lack of cell phones is the giveaway, I think. Ellie and her little brother are away from their parents, yet there are no calls back and forth. There aren't even any thoughts of calling if only the family weren't camping so far away from cell towers. Will kids be so caught up in the story that they won't wonder about that?

Of course, cell phones are a big plotting challenge for writers today; they make lots of classic problems go away. On the other hand, cell phones also open up new opportunities, as in Zizou Corder's LionBoy series, not to mention Lauren Myracle's ttyl. Either way, today's middle-grade readers probably can't remember a time without them.


Monica Edinger said...

Cell phones or phoning in general. I just listened to an adult book, The Thirteenth Tale, and kept wondering when the biographer's story was taking place. (She's listening to an older woman telling a story that is clearly from an earlier time.) There were perhaps two mentions of using a phone. Most of the time she wrote letters and I kept wondering when the hell the story took place.

Ruth McNally Barshaw said...

This is entertaining-- thank you!
You caught me. I am Ellie McDoodle, though she is a bit of each of my kids as well.
For the record, I only first bought a cell phone last year, so my tween daughter grew up without one. And she also doesn't have a GameBoy, iPod nor a Wii!
Poor, deprived kid. ;)

(Book 2 finds the family out of the wilderness, so there are references to more modern-day contraptions)