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Longtime humor columnist Dave Barry is back. But this time, he’s tickling kids’ funny bones as a young-adult novelist.

retired his weekly syndicated humor column in 2005, some wondered what he would do next. But instead of joining the canasta-and-shuffleboard crowd, the Pulitzer Prize–winning humorist discovered a new audience for his sidesplitting comedy: kids.

It was Barry’s close friend, thriller writer Ridley Pearson, who suggested he give the young-adult crowd a try. “It dawned on me that Dave has never really matured past nine years old anyway, so how perfect could it be?” Pearson asks.

The two teamed up to write Peter and the Starcatchers, a prequel to the Peter Pan story; it flew off the shelves faster than a ticked-off Tinkerbell. At each stop of their book tour, Barry and Pearson -- dressed in pirate attire -- were greeted by hundreds of kids, some in similar pirate gear and all wanting more of the books.

“Kids are the most amazing readers,” Barry says. “They’re so enthusiastic. They’re just really into the story. They don’t care who you are, what the reviewers said. They don’t care if it’s a best seller or going to be made into a movie. It’s the story that interests them.”

After writing three best-selling Starcatchers books in three years, the two thought they had wrapped up the trilogy’s story line with a nice shiny bow and were done with the series. Then the letters started arriving. “We had all this mail from kids, who were not asking but telling us we had to write another one,” Barry says. “They pointed out all these things we hadn’t explained. And so, Ridley and I did an unusual amount of poking around for us. We found an idea for a fourth book, and everything seemed to make so much sense.”

In the new fourth installment, Peter and the Sword of Mercy (Disney Books, $19), Barry and Pearson cross Charlemagne with Tinkerbell, throwing in a few talking porpoises and a feathered helicopter for good measure. It may sound confusing, but it all comes together in a wonderfully funny, fast-paced read.

The pair of authors honed the plot through several months of back-and-forth e-mails, a process they call “ping-pong collaboration.” “I’m more of a backhand guy,” Barry explains. “Ridley is a straight shooter, up the middle.” So Pearson takes on the bone-tingling sections, while Barry tackles the bone-tickling parts. And Barry admits to having a soft spot for a few of his characters.

“I love Captain Hook more with each passing book, because he wants so badly to be bad, but he’s really bad at being bad,” he says. “Our latest book has a couple of new characters I really like, especially Uncle Neville, whose brilliant inventions never seem to do what they’re supposed to.”

As they hit the road together for Peter and the Sword of Mercy’s book tour, they will figure out what’s next. A fifth book, perhaps? It’s not planned -- but then again, neither was Barry’s second career as a children’s author. “I don’t think I ever imagined that five years later, I would still be writing books for young readers,” he says. “And now, I don’t think I’ll ever stop.”

All Kidding Aside

Now that Dave Barry is writing best sellers for the younger set, we asked him which children’s books top the charts with his own kids.

The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back

“I’ve read both of these at least 53,000 times, and I’ve never been allowed to skip a page. You read a lot of books for children that are teach-y or preachy or just stupid, and you realize why kids love Dr. Seuss. He’s not only a genius, but kids could see he was genius -- a wonderfully subversive, quirky guy who created this world in which things are not as simple as they look.”

Good Night, Gorilla

“This was my favorite book to read to my daughter, Sophie. It’s the one where all the animals sneak out of the zoo. Again, it’s a little subversive. The animals don’t go to bed; they all sneak out. It’s a simple enough concept and very exciting to Sophie.”

Shark in the Park!

“This kid keeps seeing a shark in the park, but it’s always something that looks like a shark. At the end of the book, guess what? All the animals sneak out. There really is a shark in the park.”