Choosing a Great Read-Aloud, Part II: Laughter and Empathy

In Part I, we looked at how subject matter and illustrations help engage the child by setting up interaction. Humor achieves a similar effect, particularly for the young.


Quick List, Humorous:
Dr. Seuss
Rylant, Cynthia. Henry and Mudge.
Sciezka, Jon. Stinky Cheese Man.


And Humorous Titles from Great Read-Alouds, Part I:
Brett, Jan. The Mitten.
McClosky, Robert. Make Way for Ducklings.
Chris Raschka Yo? Yes!
Rathman, Peggy. Officer Buckles and Gloria.
Scarry, Richard. Cars and Trucks and Things That Go.
Shannon, David. No, David.
Wood, Don and Audrey. Piggies.


Quick List, On the Serious Side:
Brown, Margaret Wise. Runaway Bunny.
Bunting, Eve. Smoky Night.
Golanbock, Peter. Teammates.
Polacco, Patricia. Pink and Say.
Viorst, Judith. The Tenth Thing About Barney.
Wiles, Deborah. Freedom Summer.


Humor creates a very direct and immediate conduit between child and book, be it visual or textual. Simply put, kids love to laugh.

So do I. Whether laugh-aloud humor like Dr. Seuss or quiet humor like Cynthia Rylant’s Henry and Mudge, a humorous story is one of the easiest ways to engage the most reluctant listener.


When I sat down to write this, I surmised from experience and a tiny bit of academic knowledge that laughing is more fun than crying, laughing feels safer than being scared or tense, and laughing is a primal response as seen in infants. A quick Google search and the perusal of scientific abstracts showed me I was on the right track. When they see Frog and Toad getting into trouble again, they know it will turn out okay.


I learned that humor comes from discerning or puzzling out incongruities as the child makes sense of their world: they see Frog and Toad getting into trouble again, and may know something about the situation Frog and Toad don’t, or instantly engage in trying to figure out how Frog and Toad will get out of another fine mess.

And I also learned that laughter is key to social development and interaction.

Which explains a lot about inducing giggles in an infant through a game of peek-a-boo.


Every spring the school where I was privileged to serve as librarian held a field day, and the resting area featured a teacher reading a book.

This book had to appeal to a wide range of ages at one time, from Kindergarten through sixth grade. The title she chose year after year was Jon Sciezka’s Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, a hilarious mish-mash of fairy and folk-tales that brilliantly incorporates so many levels and types of humor in its text and illustrations that there was something for every age to enjoy.

Not that there’s no place for the serious picture book. Far from it. But there needs to be an element the child can identify with, something about the story and character with which the child can empathize.


Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, a tear-inducing story about parental sacrifice, remains ever popular with parents, but I found it was lost on kids, and I stopped sharing it. I think my young nephew put it most succinctly when he asked his father, “Why do grownups like this book so much?”


On the other hand, kids eagerly attend to Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny, which assures the preschooler they will always be loved and protected.


Judith Viorst’s The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, one of the best picture books on grief for ages five and six (at a minimum), refuses to dance around its subject from its very first line: “My cat Barney died this Friday. I was very sad.”


Poignant picture books for the older child which I highly recommend include Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say about a civil war cross-racial friendship with devastating effect, Deborah Wile’s injustice-fueled Freedom Summer, Peter Golenbock’s Teammates about Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, and Eve Bunting’s Smoky Night (on the younger side) about community coming together during an urban riot (with fabulous illustrations by David Diaz.)


From Pink and Say:


From Smoky Night:


Literacy – reading – engages and develops laughter and empathy. In everyone, of all ages.

What a beautiful thing.