Having a laugh: Why humour could be the key to unlocking a love of reading

Having a laugh: Why humour could be the key to unlocking a love of reading


Nikki Gamble

Thanks to Nikki Gamble, director of Just Imagine, for this article all about the importance of humour. As a former teacher and university lecturer, she has over 35 years of experience of working in schools and is a passionate advocate for children’s books and the role of quality literature in reading.

Comedy has the capacity to enrich our lives, but it isn’t always attributed the value that it deserves. Funny, some would argue is light, inconsequential, even trivial. I must admit that I have been guilty of such prejudice in the past – always reaching for a book with ‘serious’ themes to elicit class discussion.

I started to give humour the attention that it deserves when I noticed consistent patterns in children’s reading preferences from informal observation and more formally the collation of reading perception surveys conducted over 20 years in different schools across the UK. The message was clear – funny books were the most popular choice across the primary age range. This has recently been borne out by Farshore’s Reading for Pleasure and Purpose report which found that funny stories were the most popular, peaking in popularity with 8–10-year-olds when 53% of boys and 60% of girls enjoy them.

I started to research humour to find out if there were benefits beyond the motivation to read. In fact, there is a huge body of cross-disciplinary research from literary studies to psychology, from child development to healthcare, highlighting for us the many benefits of humour. From a social perspective, humour can play a role in developing positive relationships including breaking down barriers with authority figures. There is some evidence that humour is good for our well-being too (though this is more nuanced than simply having increased opportunities to laugh). And far from being trivial, humour can exercise our cognitive abilities. There are many kinds of jokes – have a look at some joke books and then take a moment to consider what a reader needs to do to be able to process and understand them.



A few years ago, I was conducting an action research project in London schools. One of the issues that emerged was a drop-off in reading in year 3 for some children who could read but were not choosing to. I wondered whether an approach that put children’s reading preferences at the fore might make a difference for this group of children, who were not yet disaffected but were in danger of turning away from reading. And so the HaHaBoing Book Club was formed.

The principles were simple. Firstly, increased access to a wide range of funny books covering all genres, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, picture books, and joke books. And secondly, for half a term, the opportunity to engage with the books during lesson time. It was essential that the club took place during lesson time and not during a break, lunchtime or after school.

For group leaders, we proposed using playful approaches that did not feel like lessons. E B White, the author of Charlotte’s Web once famously wrote, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.” We advocated taking small groups of children out of a literacy lesson, for one session a week if possible, providing a special experience in the library. Some Headteachers created a warm and welcoming atmosphere in their office with juice and biscuits. The salient point was that the book club should feel like a fun activity rather than hard work.

We provided a handbook with some simple games and activities that could be used in the sessions. Core activities were reading aloud to the group at the beginning of each session, allowing time for browsing and sharing. Games included trying to keep a straight face while being read a funny passage, creating a laughometer by ranking books from the most to the least funny, creating a group joke book with favourite gags. After half a term (about 6 sessions) the feedback from teachers was overwhelming. A focus on funny had reignited interest in reading for those children who had started to drift.



The story isn’t quite finished. During the pandemic, we put the HaHaBoing Book Club on ice, but once schools fully reopened, it seemed to me that the chorus of ‘catch up’ was unhelpful for children and potentially anxiety-inducing. Children who had not had as much experience as others needed the opportunity to build confidence, form positive relationships and kindle a love of reading, HaHaBoing seemed to fit that bill.

So when Dianne Ellithorn, a Deputy Headteacher from St John’s CE School in Bury contacted me to discuss what her school could do to address this concern, we agreed to try the HaHaBoing approach. After the first half term, Dianne got in touch to say it had been hugely successful, the group of ‘hard to reach’ readers were more motivated to read in class and were finding books that they enjoyed as well as engaging more in book talk sessions. Dianne’s intention was to repeat the book club with groups of children in different year groups.

Six months after finishing HaHaBoing, Dianne interviewed the children and their class teacher to see if there had been any lasting impact. She was delighted to discover that the children were still enjoying reading. One boy had made a personal joke book and delighted in impromptu joke-telling sessions. One girl reported that she had been to the library to find more books in her favourite funny series. The class teacher noted that the focus group had more positive attitudes toward reading. But an unexpected benefit was the enjoyment shared across the class community.

As we head towards the summer holidays, my reading pile is building. I will be making sure that it includes some funny books. We all need a laugh, don’t we?



Barrington Stoke publishes an extensive range of funny books to keep children entertained over the summer holidays!

Some of our favourites include...


The Unlucky Eleven

The Unlucky Eleven

by Phil Earle, illustrated by Steve May

A fun football tale for little readers packed with laughs, friendship and a spot of superstition …

Ridiculous injuries … strange illnesses … cancelled games … Everything's going wrong for the Saints this season, and Stanley's team-mates believe they finally know why. Their football kit is cursed! But the team's attempts to break the curse take things from bad to worse. Soon, they're ready to call it quits. Stanley's still got some tricks up his sleeve … but will his curse-cracking ideas save the team in time for the last game of the season?


Nellie Choc Ice, Penguin Explorer

Nelly Choc-Ice, Penguin Explorer

by Jeremy Strong, illustrated by Jamie Smith

Plucky young penguin Nellie Choc-Ice goes on an epic adventure when her iceberg floats off to the North Pole. Nellie needs all her wits about her to outsmart a steady stream of hungry creatures who reckon she looks like a tasty treat. Will Nellie ever find her way home? High quality cream paper and a special easy to read font ensure a smooth read for all.


Nappy the Pirate Baby

Nappy the Pirate Baby

by Alan MacDonald, illustrated by Elissa Elwick

Captain Sprat and his pirate crew love nothing more than lazing around on the deck of the Salty Herring. Until one day, a strange wailing noise shatters the peace.Shiver me timbers! There’s a stowaway baby on board, and the crew decide they’re going to raise him like a proper pirate! But are they really up to the task of looking after a baby? And where exactly did Nappy come from?


Rock Bottom

Rock Bottom

by Ross Montgomery, illustrated by Mark Beech

Nick is truly, madly in love with Jessie Stone. And she doesn't even know his name. In a ploy to win her heart, he plans to star alongside her in the school production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. But when he's cast as the foolish Bottom instead of the romantic lead, his whole world comes crashing down. Enter Robyn, school mischief-maker, who has some crafty tricks up her sleeve. With her help Nick is sure he can get Jessie to notice him just as long as his grand plans don't go up in smoke … A laugh-out-loud comical caper of friendship, true love and a completely disastrous school Shakespeare production from bestselling author Ross Montgomery. Particularly suitable for struggling, reluctant and dyslexic readers aged 8+


Noodle the Doodle

Noodle the Doodle

by Jonathan Meres, illustrated by Katy Halford

Someone new is joining the class at Wigley Primary … He's got four legs, a big bark and shaggy golden curls! Nora, Lou, Marty, Josh and the other children love having Noodle the Doodle at school. He listens when they read him stories, he sings along in music class and he even delivers messages to the other classroom … or at least, he tries to! So when Mr Reed announces that they're taking a school trip to the seaside, they're thrilled that Noodle will be coming too. But the beach is an exciting place for a dog – perhaps too exciting. Will Noodle be on his best behaviour or will the whole trip end in chaos? Particularly suitable for struggling, reluctant or dyslexic readers aged 8+


Sterling and the Canary

Sterling and the Canary

by Andy Stanton, illustrated by Ross Collins

Sterling Thaxton is in love. In love with Lizzie Harris – the beautiful new girl. Her hair is the colour of magic. Her nose is as sweet as music. Her arms are as slender as rainbows. Problem is, she’s not interested. Luckily a small yellow canary turns up with some excellent advice.




Picture Perfect

Picture Perfect

by Serena Patel, illustrated by Louise Forshaw

Sonal needs to capture a great family picture for her school photography project but it’s impossible when everyone’s always so busy! Luckily they’re heading off on a family camping trip which should provide lots of great photo opportunities … shouldn’t it? Faced with an enforced digital detox, will Sonal’s family come together and have fun … or will the trip end in complete disaster?



The Day My Family Disappeared

The Day My Family Disappeared

by Jo Simmons, illustrated by Lee Cosgrove

Bob Bunyon is fed up. In a family full of artists and performers, he’s the one with no talent, the one bypassed by the creativity gene – and his four siblings just won’t let him forget it. Finally sick of being taunted for being so "normal”, Bob wishes that his family would all just disappear, but he doesn’t really expect his wish to come true!

When he wakes the next day to find everyone gone, Bob’s initial delight quickly turns to worry. Does he have supernatural powers? Is he the only survivor of a zombie apocalypse or an alien invasion?

Gathering all his courage, and employing survival skills learned from TV endurance shows, Bob sets out to find his missing family …


The Humiliations of Welton Blake

The Humiliations of Welton Blake

by Alex Wheatle

Welton Blake has done it! He’s asked out Carmella McKenzie – the best-looking girl in school – and she’s only gone and said yes!

But just as he thinks his luck is starting to change, Welton’s phone breaks, kick-starting a series of unfortunate and humiliating events. With bullies to avoid, girls ready to knock him out and all the drama with his mum and dad, life for Welton is about to go very, very wrong …