Tag Archives: humor

The Midnight Gang by David Walliams; illustrated by Tony Ross

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The Midnight Gang by David Walliams; illustrated by Tony Ross
Harper Collins, 2018 (originally published in the UK in 2016)

A wacky novel celebrating the imagination, creativity, and kindness of children, set in an oddly anachronistic English hospital. When Tom gets hit on the head by a cricket ball at his boarding school, he is whisked to the children’s ward in London’s Lord Funt Hospital. There he discovers the Midnight Gang, fellow child patients who escape from their beds at night to make a dream come true for one of their numbers with the aid of the porter.

A lot of this is very sweet, gently funny, and anarchic in a Roald Dahl sort of way and Tony Ross’s whimsical and exuberant illustrations compound the comparison. However, the novel is old-fashioned though not in a good way, feeling reminiscent of a children’s story from the 1950’s complete with all the oblivious racism and classism of that time. The only person of color is the “dinner lady” Tootsie with her “huge Afro hairstyle” , who speaks “as if she were singing a song.” Dilly, one of the hospital cleaners, is a lazy caricatures of English working class incompetence, complete with cigarette permanently dangling from her mouth.

Other adults including the matron and the headmaster of Tom’s school who are straight out of the Dahl-playbook of cruel child haters. The Midnight Gang themselves are swiftly delineated: Amber is bossy, Robin is a smart alec, George is fat. Only the very sick Sally, left out of the gang as she is too weak to join in, and Tom himself who is a lonely and bullied child, show any semblance of being characters.

Mr Walliams is very popular in the UK as both a comedian and children’s author and he has had several books published in the US, including The Demon Dentist (2016). However, this book feels like a misfire to me and I wouldn’t recommend it to even the most Anglophile kid.

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The Crims by Kate Davies

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The Crims by Kate Davies
Harper, 2017.

A mildly entertaining British novel about a family of absurdly incompetent criminals whose style reminded me of both David Baddiel’s The Parent Agency and Julian Clary’s The Bolds.

12 year old Imogen ran away to a fancy boarding school after the matriarch of the Crims was killed in a heist. However, when the rest of the family is jailed for the theft of a valuable lunch box, she feels obliged to return to help them out.

Davies does a competent job of delineating the numerous Crims by providing them with a defining trait: fearsome-looking Uncle Knuckles is really a gentle flower-loving man, Freddie is astonishingly absent-minded, Imogen’s father is an accountant who loves numbers and book-keeping, and so on. Imogen had developed an ambition to be a future world leader while at school, but now discovers that her love for her family and her suppressed criminal plotting genius outweighs that.

The silly situations, word play, and broad characters are somewhat reminiscent of Lemony Snicket, though the quips about grisly murders fall rather flat.

Judging by the open ending, the intention is to have a sequel in which the Crims take on the frighteningly competent Kruk family.

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

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hark a vagrantHark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Drawn and Quarterly, 2011

Hark! A Vagrant is not strictly YA, but nonetheless has enormous appeal to older teens. We’ve had several of the comic strips up in my library and, though it was a bit of a slow burn, they now have many committed fans among the cool young cognescenti.

The comics are witty, erudite, supersmart (though definitely not above a fart joke), have a feminist bent, and make me laugh harder than anything I’ve read or seen in ages. The black and white drawings are deceptively simple, but the characters’ expressions embellish many of the jokes. The helpful and funny footnotes aid comprehension, though not in an entirely straightforward way.lord byron

Collected from a long-running website, the short strips are mainly grouped around satirical literary themes. Hark! A Vagrant opens with ‘Dude Watching with the Brontes’ (“So brooding!”), has a poke at the Scottish Play when one of the three weird sisters can’t meet up when the hurly burly’s done because she has a dental appointment on her calendar, has Nancy Drew’s Ghost of Blackwood Hall playing Bennie and the Jets, and compresses Crime and Punishment into 24 panels, the key clue being Raskolnikov’s article “Murdering Old Ladies: Not Even a Big Deal”. Dracula, Edgar Allan Poe, Robinson Crusoe, King Lear, and many others, all get their serious ideas shredded for some pointed laughs.

Beaton also get some yuks from history with insights on some well-known topics like the French Revolution and the Founding Fathers, but also enjoying sport with the obscurity (at least to us) of Canadian history, and the downtroddenness of “every lady scientist who ever did anything till now.”

But writing any more just continues to prove that Kate Beaton’s writing is way funnier than mine, so the  best thing you can do is grab a copy of one of her books, or click onto her website and enjoy plenty of those satisfying I’ve-just-understood-an-obscure-reference chuckles.

We Know It Was You by Maggie Thrash

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we-know-it-was-youWe Know It Was You by Maggie Thrash,
Simon & Schuster, October, 2016

At the start of this warped dark comedy mystery, the students of Winship Academy watch as a cheerleader in the Wildcat mascot costume apparently commits suicide by throwing herself off a bridge. But luckily the members of the Mystery Club are on hand: Benny Flax, one of the few Jews at the school, and blonde-haired Virginia Leeds set about getting to the bottom of this mystery.

Benny and Virginia do investigate and find clues, and they do uncover what is going on, and the plot does reach some sort of satisfying conclusion. But to read this deeply bizarre book as a straightforward whodunit would be to completely miss the point.

Benny set up the Mystery Club because he “believed in justice and inclusivity, and that everyone deserved the chance to improve themselves through the act of mystery solving.” But he eschews the human element of detective work, preferring the more cerebral observation work. Conversely, Virginia is deeply interested in people and what they get up to, but tends to get bogged down and sidetracked by small details. You might think this is the set up for a screwball romantic partnership as well, but you would be wrong, at least in this book. It does appear that this could be the first in a series.

Winship exists in its own bubble with its own logic, and there is a whole miscellany of support characters who, while familiar in some senses, are also completely out there versions of their archetypes. Brown-skinned Brit Zaire Bollo despises all things American; Gottfried the slacker German exchange student has managed to extend his stay to two and a half years; Corny Davenport, a cheerleader with a heart of pure schmaltz, and her boyfriend, Winn, who has an unusual relationship with his grandfather’s Civil War rifle.

Thrash, whose Honor Girl graphic novel (Candlewick, 2015) is also terrific, has a thrillingly deft hand with language – it’s both pinpointedly specific and observationally exhilarating. Here are just a few examples that I highlighted on my way through the book:

“Every time [Virginia] started to think Benny was kind of a badass, she’d catch him doing something really nerdy, like using ten different colored pens to take notes, or playing the flute way too earnestly.”

“Zaire had fantastic clothes, which seemed like a waste, because all she ever did was study. Who needed plush velvet skirts from Milan to read Moby Dick and do algebra?”

A musician is described as having “a round face and a trad Republican sidepart haircut that either his mother gave him or was supposed to be ironic.”

This is a mystery for those who don’t mind holes in their plots, or extravagantly unlikely resolutions, and who enjoy a setting and characters who might have stepped out of a YA David Lynch movie.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The Parent Agency by David Baddiel; illustrated by Jim Field

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parent agencyThe Parent Agency by David Baddiel; illustrated by Jim Field
Harper, May 2015.

Today it’s part two of debut-children’s-novels-from-British-comedians-who were-famous-before-I-left-Britain-in-1997 week! Today’s author, David Baddiel, is best remembered by me for the History Today sketches that he did with Rob Newman. As with Julian Clary (Monday’s author), Mr. Baddiel has since gone on to many more things.

Barry Bennett keeps a list of why his parents are inadequate: they’re poor, boring, tired all the time, won’t let him do what he wants to do, and seem to like his younger twin sisters more than him. After an argument with his Dad about his imminent tenth birthday party, Barry is transported to an alternative world, where the kids are in charge and they get to choose their parents.

The story is structured so that over the course of five days, Barry gets to try a set of parents that are the opposite of each one of his parents’ failings: the fabulously wealthy Rader-Wellorffs, the famous Vlassorina pair, the fitness fanatical Fwahms!, the lackadiasical Cools, and the Bustles who act like they prefer him to their twin daughters. Each segment is amusingly broad, and the quest structure keeps things moving along nicely. Of course this is a tale of the grass being greener on the other side, and readers won’t be surprised by Barry’s final decision.

The slapsticky, often potty, occasionally questionable, humor will appeal to elementary grade readers, and Jim Field’s cartoony illustrations fit perfectly with this tone. However, many of the jokes are really pitched to adults, and British ones to boot – few kids (or Americans) are going to get that Jamie Gherkiner is a play on Jamie Oliver. Additionally, some of the word play is a bit strained: Countries in the alternative reality include United Kid Dom and Boysnia Herzogeweeny.

Barry is a typically self-centered nearly ten-year-old, and many kids will be able to relate to his frustrations with his parents. However at times he can be a bit selfish and, occasionally, rather mean. Of course, this is part of his ‘journey’ as he grows to realize that loving parents don’t necessarily have all the superficial trappings he might want, nor will they give in to his every whim. The ending is entirely expected but satisfying nonetheless, even if it is a little corny and very unlikely.

Thanks to Harper and Edelweiss for the eARC.

The Bolds by Julian Clary

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BoldsThe Bolds  by Julian Clary; illustrated by David Roberts
Carolrhoda, 2016

This week is debut-children’s-novels-from-British-comedians week! Or to be even more precise debut-children’s-novels-from-British-comedians-who were-famous-before-I-left-Britain-in-1997 week! Today we have a book from Julian Clary, best known to me for his partnership with Fanny the Wonder Dog, as the Joan Collins Fan Club, but who has since moved on to many other things. Thursday will be David Baddiel.

This amiable and silly elementary grade fantasy about a hyena family, the Bolds, who live as humans, subtly takes on fitting in, tolerance, and difference.

In the guise of two British tourists who get eaten by crocodiles, an African hyena couple move to suburban England, get jobs, have children, and make friends with everyone except their grumpy neighbor, Mr. McNumpty. It is only when they visit a safari park and meet another family of hyenas, that they decide to do something potentially very foolish.

Camp British TV personality and comedian Clary’s somewhat nannyish narration gives zip to this episodically structured novel. The Bolds, like all stereotypical hyenas, laugh uproariously at everything and their buoyant optimism and can do attitude gives the novel charm. Roberts’ ebullient and toothy illustrations and Mr. Bold’s many corny jokes – his job is to write the riddles for Christmas crackers – keep the tone playful, and there’s some potty humor thrown in as well.

It would have been nice for there to have been a suggestion that there is more to Africa than wild animals and safaris, but this is just not that sort of book. Amusing and cheerful, this will have wide appeal to reluctant readers, as well as lovers of the absurd.

Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

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castle hangnailCastle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon
Dial, 2015

This was actually my top-ranked book of our seven shortlisted Books in the Cybils Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, but it didn’t have quite the same traction with some of the other judges as it did for me.

In this smart, funny, and heartwarmingly charming and adorable fantasy, 12 year-old Molly claims to be a Wicked Witch and the new Master of Castle Hangnail. Though the castle’s minions are initially skeptical, they hope she will complete the Board of Magic’s Tasks and save the castle from being decommissioned.

There are some really funny twists on fantasy and horror tropes as the world is set up, which, while not necessarily wholly original (the author tips her hat to Eva Ibbotson in the acknowledgements), feel fresh, sharp, and appropriate to the intended reader. A lot of the humor is derived from the bathos of what should be and what is: A Master should “be storming around the battlements, defying the gods, screaming dark curses, raining lightning down on the village,” whereas Molly is appreciating poached eggs and interested in meeting the chickens. And her new outfit makes her look not quite like a queen of the night but more like “a princess of moderately late in the afternoon.”

Hangnail Castle is a terrific setting. It doesn’t have jagged mountains or a blasted heath, but is in a pleasant rural community, close to a friendly village with a post office and a antiques shop. This mixing of modern day quotidian problems into a fantasy olde worlde setting is exemplified by the plumbing problems they have, which recognize, as so many books do not, that a person needs to use a toilet on a regular basis.

Molly, “a plump girl with a round face, a stubborn chin, and frizzy brown hair” is a peach: Wicked but not wicked, curious, open, and full of heart. She manages to defy expectations, yet still achieve her goals in her own way; and though she has many doubts, she is grittily resilient and imaginative.

The Castle Hangnail characters.

The Castle Hangnail characters.

The team of minions are wonderfully drawn, with each one having a unique voice and their own role to play in the story. Majordomo was “born a minion, raised a minion, had died a minion several times, and then brought back to life with lightning rods, still a minion,” and his intense devotion to duty and subsequent doubts about Molly is a standout. And there are also two minotaurs who are the cook and the handyman, a talking suit of armor, a burlap doll who does the laundry and tailoring, his neurotic goldfish, and steamy (literally) spirit Serenissima who has her “associate minion degree and was considering graduate minion studies”

The plot is well-structured and zips along, allowing the author room for plenty of fun but having enough tension to keep the reader engaged, as Molly first has to complete her Tasks, and then, having secured the castle and won the support of the minions and the villagers, take on an Evil Sorceress Eudaimonia. This last section has a slightly darker tone as Molly recognizes how she has been bullied, and gets a scary peek into the Kingdom of Shadows.

I would happily press Castle Hangnail into the hands of any 3rd – 6th grader who enjoys stories with fantasy, humor, or strong characters. Or maybe any 3rd – 6th grader. Or younger! Or older!