Danny Wallace on the fun of hidden jokes - for readers and authors
There is a fun game you can play as a children's author, called "Hide a joke somewhere and see if someone spots it".
It is not a snappy name, but it's still great to do.
Because they will. They always will.
You can hide a joke as well as you like - a pun wrapped in a riddle hidden in the background of a shadow - but at some point, somewhere, some kid will bound up to you and proudly tell you they saw it. That you tried to hide something from them, you tried to out-clever them, but that you failed, because they're smart.
And this is one more reason why writing for kids is so satisfying. Once they get into something, they embrace it, because they are forensic readers. And it reminds me of my own childhood, reading and re-reading torn and battered comics like the Beano, Whizzer & Chips, Topper, Beezer and Oink! just so I could be absolutely, totally sure I'd wrung every single joke from every single one - whether somewhere in the words, or placed quietly in the corner of a panel by a maverick illustrator.
You don't tend to see kids speed-reading. You don't tend to see kids skim through a few chapters of something and stop, saying, "Yeah, I get the gist". The details matter to kids. It shows the grown-ups care, and beyond the big concept, and after all the characters, those details are things you can share together.
This - and meeting kids at schools and festivals, or even in pubs (I should point out they are generally with their parents, and virtually never on a stag do) - has made me want to do that. To be one of the people placing those jokes, there to be discovered like an Easter egg under a tree. Of no real consequence to story or character, but there just because reading should be even more fun than writing.
The illustrations are obviously no different. Jamie Littler, who brings to life the Hamish series as well as many others, often adds new and fun details and moments that surprise and delight me as much as they might a kid: those little moments there to be seen if only you're looking. And once you've spotted one, you'll (hopefully) want to know if there are more to come.
I like that feeling so much, that in Hamish and the Monster Patrol (out this week), I've planted a callback to a joke I set up five years ago, and which has remained without a real payoff ever since. It's just been sitting there, hanging around and forgotten.
And I put that callback there because I know that sometime, somewhere, a kid will get that, and might laugh out loud at the ludicrousness of it, and then bound up to me to tell me with great glee... that yet again, I have failed to out-clever them.
And I'll be absolutely delighted.
Hamish and the Monster Patrol by Danny Wallace and illustrated by Jamie Littler is out on Thursday, 18 April (pb £6.99, Simon & Schuster).