What is black comedy?

There’s more to children’s books that unicorns and rainbows. Often children’s authors dare to explore darker topics such as war, tragedy, and yes, even death!

While children’s stories are usually bright and cheery, some authors turn to black humour or dark comedy to write about the difficult subjects that children have to process every day in real life.

Facing grim realities

Black humour is a style of comedy that juxtaposes dark or morbid elements with comical ones. Writers use this style to make readers think about issues that are normally considered serious or painful to discuss. Though it might seem like it is suitable only for adults, a surprisingly large number of children’s classics use this technique. The young readers are encouraged to try and understand the wickedness of the world rather than shy away from it.

In children’s literature

  • The term “black humour” (from the French humour noir) was coined by the surrealist Andre Breton in 1935 while describing the work of Jonathan Swift. A satirist, Swift’s works including the classic “Gulliver’s Travels” make scathing attacks on people’s greed, pomposity and vanity.
  • One of the earliest examples of black humour is Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” Collodi depicts Pinocchio as one who is aggressive and constantly defying authority. Pinocchio betrays his father and the good fairy over and over again and kills Jiminy Cricket, who tries to give him good advice.
  • Tired of the sermonising tone in the children’s books of the time, Lewis Carroll wrote the intentionally logically-impaired “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and its sequel “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” (1871).
  • The most prominent contemporary write to have adopted this style is Roald Dahl. His books feature such memorable moments as a boy’s cruel aunts being crushed by a giant piece of fruit in “James and Giant Peach” (1961), or the revenge the title character in “Matilda” (1988) gains over her own wicked parent. The naughty children of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (1964) suffer a series of unhappy fates as a result of their various faults.
  • The macabre tales in Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events”
  •  is another example of black humour. The story of the three orphaned children who find ways to thwart the evil Count Olaf juxtaposes grimmer points with goofy moments.

Black humour helps readers understand the gloom and doom of life in a humorous way.


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