The writers in “Funny Girl,” a collection of humorous essay edited by Betsy Bird, are well past those few excruciating pre-teen and early teen years, but they remember that time well. In prose, letters, and graphic-novella form, the women recall the humorous side of their adventures or mishaps when they were girls bravely facing the unknown, uncomfortable, and complicated adult world.
By upending conventional perspective, humor helps spin a potentially disastrous situation and returns a measure of control to the young person in the middle of it all.
In “Dear Grandpa, Give Me Money,” by Allison DeCamp, a girl trying to get money from her grandfather kindly encloses an envelope in the letter to hold the thousand dollars she is requesting. She plans to buy cool new stuff so she can be a friend of Carmela, who, everybody knows, always has the newest and the latest. It takes her a while to learn what her grandpa tells her, “You will never, ever have enough money to be Carmela’s friend.”
A friend of a friend of a friend of her mother is looking for a babysitter, writes Shannon Hale in “Babysitting Nightmare.” It would be only for a few hours, and the money earned would go toward science camp. Cookies figure magically – if somewhat eerily – in this story about how 4-year-old twins are already masters at out-maneuvering a babysitter prepared with picture books, crafts, and her trusty cow puppet.
In “One Hot Mess,” by Carmen Agra Deedy, the new girl in the apartment complex invites some would-be friends to watch her mother set the bathtub on fire. No one expected the ensuing conflagration, but her one friend, the son of a firefighter consoles her, “It’s only crazy when somebody else’s family does it.”
These writers – and the girls they once were – have learned, as Ms. Bird says, “A sense of humor is the best superpower you can have. …it’s hard to be down on yourself when you find yourself funny. Or when you find the kernel of humor in dire situations.”
Ms. Bird, Collection Development Manager at the Evanston Public Library, said she came up with the idea for the anthology several years ago when she was working at New York Public Library’s Central Children’s Room. “This was during the rise of Diary of a Wimpy Kid [by Jeff Kinney] a.k.a. the series that made funny books for kids cool again. Every day I’d work the reference desk and deal with an onslaught of kids asking, ‘What else do you have that’s funny?’ My instinct was just to pick up the usual suspects, but after a while I figured it might be a good idea to hand them something other than white men all the time.”
Yet, Ms. Bird says, there was no such thing to be found, and children’s collections of funny stories “often just have a token lady in there. Add in the fact that when you ask kids to name their favorite funny female writer they often meet you with a blank stare, and I was determined that the time was right to make children understand that women are just as hilarious as guys. My agent concurred, noting that in the entertainment industry we’ve seen franchises like “Ghostbusters” starring women and our first late-night host Samantha Bee garnering some news.”
Sharyn November at Penguin Random House and Ms. Bird “came up with a dream list of people we wanted to work with, and every single one of them had to have made me laugh in the past.”
The book is dedicated to Lillian, Ms. Bird’s daughter, a rising first-grader, and “the original funny girl.” Lillian asks for a joke in her lunch pail every day, Ms. Bird says. She added, in email correspondence, “The time for funny women is now.”