reviews 10 – 14 Middle/Secondary continued

The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh


Helen Rutter, illus. Andrew Bannecker, Scholastic 300pp., 9780702300851, £6.99 pbk

Your reviewer manages a stammer, and was pleased to assess this book. Helen Rutter wrote this story because her own son stammers, and she wanted there to be a book he could identify with, plus jokes, for which she held a national competition, judged by Noel Fielding, for children to send in their favourites. Some are old, and others new, but hailing this book as the funniest debut of 2021, as the cover does, may be a bit premature. A joke is the heading for every chapter, as Billy Plimpton loves jokes, and tries out many on his Granny with whom he is more relaxed, and she has always been his best audience. As the story begins, he is just starting secondary school, and tries to hide his stammer until he has worked out how to get rid of it. One of his own lists, ‘How to stay hidden’, works for a while, but eventually a teacher asks each member of the class to prepare a speech about something important to them, and, although Billy tries everything he can to get out of it, his Mum and speech therapist insist that he does it, and his impediment is revealed, but in a way that makes the class sympathetic to him, except for the class bully, William, whom Billy had identified as trouble from the first day. Billy tells us about the four ways that

adults react to him : the Encouragers, who tell him to relax (which doesn’t help); the Mind-Readers, who finish his sentences for him (often inaccurate, and

annoying); the

stammer back at him (not funny) and the Waiters, who patiently

Jokers, who let

him finish what he is saying. He has various possible ‘cures’- his speech therapist has given him various coping mechanisms, all totally recognizable, and he finds others on the internet. Of course, nothing works, not even a ‘relaxing’ herbal tea that he finds disgusting. He is naturally funny: his only former classmate from primary school, Skyla, enjoys his jokes, and he does make some good friends.

His Form

Teacher, Mr Osho, (of Nigerian origin) is very helpful and supportive indeed, writing 10 important things about Billy in his notebook, and also encouraging him to take up drumming. The end-of- term school talent show is promising – should he be a drummer, and with which band? Or a comedian, which is his dearest wish? Helen Rutter works this out very cleverly, and the various relationships Billy has with the people around him show him to be a resourceful and kind person - he even manages to sort things out with William the bully. Although Skyla’s story is not quite resolved, his family and friends, and the delightful Mr Osho, are all credible characters, and the ending of this enjoyable book is positive. DB

Maggie Blue and the Dark World


Anna Goodall, Guppy Books, 330pp, 978 1 913101 312, £12.99 hbk

Maggie Blue Brown’s world in North London suburbia is grey and joyless. Her mother is elsewhere, and

self-absorbed, simmering

with fury towards a husband who has abandoned both her and her daughter. Twelve-year-old


has been despatched to share the one-bedroom flat of her elderly Aunt

Esme, whom she’s barely

met before. But she likes Esme’s gentle eccentricities; and she also is fascinated by her antique ring formed by a serpent eating its own tail - which is to prove central to the plot. Maggie has started at Fortlake School where no-one notices her unless it’s to bully her, often making fun of her name. She retaliates with her fists, earning sharp words from the remote Miss McCrab, a Head with little inclination to talk, let alone listen, to individual students. The only person who does show interest is the new Guidance Counsellor, Miss Cane; it’s not long before Maggie discovers that she’s not to be trusted. Maggie’s loneliness is relieved to

some degree by an odd couple of new contacts: Dot, one of Esme’s even more eccentric friends; and Hoagy, an ageing, street-wise, one-eyed cat who, it turns out, is a drily witty conversationalist. Maggie knows she’s good at reading people, but she is understandably surprised to find that not only can she understand Hoagy, she can also engage in spirited exchanges with him; when Hoagy can be bothered, that is. Readers will surely welcome every time the cat stalks onto the page, since Hoagy is the well-spring of comedy in this debut novel. He is the essence of feline intelligence, independence and testy impatience with human folly. Playing to her strengths, Anna Goodall occasionally switches focus from Maggie’s adventures to join Hoagy’s equally hazardous path through the plot.

If he goes astray, Hoagy resorts

to cat-nav. Things fall apart for Maggie when

Ida, her chief tormentor in school, disappears in the mysterious Everfall Woods, adjoining the school grounds. Maggie is suspected

of being

involved. As readers used to find in the early fantasies of Alan Garner, characters discover entrances to slip swiftly between our everyday world and an alternative universe – the Dark World of the title. North London may have been lonely and unkind, but the Dark World is fraught with serious risk and malice. It’s a dying habitat, where only the return of The Great O, “protector of nature and nature itself” might bring healing. Those in control are ruthless and duplicitous, driven only by self-interest, to the point of kidnapping humans from Maggie’s


Patrice Lawrence, OUP, 148pp, 9780198494935, £7.99 pbk

Patrice Lawrence skilfully draws

the reader into teenager Al’s world of loneliness, fear, anger, and deprivation as Al tells his own story in a direct and engaging narrative voice. Al’s Mum has just come out of prison and his greatest fear is that she will be drawn back into drug taking and


suburbia so that they might literally drain the happiness from them for re-use by the privileged and powerful in the Dark World, where any kind of sustaining joy is in short supply. Maggie’s search confirms that Ida is one such victim; once the physical removal of her happiness is complete, Ida will be summarily ‘ended’. Goodall is very good at danger and violent action, both physical and psychological; the tension in the Dark World sections of the story should make for headlong and excited reading. Often, cruel power is met with sacrifice, loyalty and courage by creatures hardly equipped to

confront such threat.

Some loose ends are left unresolved, so it’s no surprise to learn from Guppy Books – welcome

newcomers Front Desk HHHHH

Kelly Yang, Knights Of, 208pp, 978-1913311094, £6.99 pbk

Mia Tang is aged ten. She and her parents have emigrated from China to the USA two years before the story begins. Her parents believed they were heading for a land opportunity. Instead however

of they

end up running the Calivista Motel in California. Their boss, Mr Yeo, treats them unfairly. He overworks them and pays them a miserable salary. They are not allowed to use the motel swimming pool. Despite these disadvantages

however the Tang

family find great satisfaction in the community they form with the motel guests. Mia has a dream. She would like to buy her own motel and manage it herself. The question is whether the family can achieve this aim? Yang’s book

has two main

strengths. Its first strength is its characterisation. Mia and her family leap off the page. Very quickly the reader comes to care deeply about the

family and their aspiration.

Equally significant is the way Yang manages to describe the hardships endured by the family – ill treatment, racial prejudice, financial exploitation, educational difficulty as Mia struggles with an unfamiliar language – all of this while still maintaining the family as

three-dimensional, strong and to

publishing for young readers in the UK – that the return of Maggie Blue Brown is expected in 2022. GF

sympathetic characters rather than as mere victims. The story of such strife, all too commonplace in the real world, is rarely narrated for middle grade readers. More people endure such suffering than read about it. RB

The Abbey Mystery (Jane Austen Investigates series)


Julia Golding, Lion Fiction, 192pp., 9781782643340, £7.99, pbk

I was a great fan of Julia Golding’s Cat Royal series and so opened this book with great anticipation.

I was not

disappointed! Intriguingly the author has taken the early life of Jane Austen, who is 13 in this story and made her into a detective but within suitably Austenish boundaries.

Jane is sent

in place of her sister Cassandra, to be a companion to Lady Cromwell as preparations are made for the celebrations of her son’s 21st coming of age.

Forewarned by her brother

Henry about the possible sighting of a ghost in the ruined abbey adjacent to the house Jane sets off determined to find said ghost and win the wager with Henry. But there is a bigger mystery to solve, and aided by Deept the Indian maid servant, Luke the stable boy and Fitzwilliam, companion to the son and heir Jane solves the mystery in an exciting denouement. Julia Golding has taken great pains

to make Jane’s voice quite authentic throughout the story and succeeds and hopefully will lead girls to Jane Austen’s novels. the

The hierarchy of big house and the servants

emerges very clearly, and also the nuances of the hereditary system on which so much depends.


is the interesting appearance of a steam engine the design of which is explained in detail, and the character of Annette, not a woman in the 18th century mould at all. There is also Jane’s dog, Grandison, who likes to chase the cricket ball – a real hard cricket ball is very hard for a dog to pick up! All this is beautifully written in

Jane’s own voice and words it seems, along with her letters to Cassandra, in shortish chapters, and makes for a greatly enjoyable read.

Let us hope

there are many more to come! It is also printed on lovely paper which makes it even more enjoyable. JF

14+ Secondary/Adult

they will lose their flat. When is Mum is arrested for shoplifting and assault and sent back to prison Al blames their downstairs neighbour, Mr Brayker, for involving the police and comes up with a plan for revenge that involves his beloved pet rats, Venom and Vulture. Al’s inner conflict, as anger and vulnerability collide, portrayed.

His gradual

is powerfully realisation,

thanks to help and intervention by his Gran, his half-sister, Plum, and local

Books for Keeps No.247 March 2021 27

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