Paul Jennings has built his reputation on short stories - a format that is supposedly difficult to publish successfully, even in the field of children's books. That he is a master of the form cannot be denied, and if there is anyone left who needs convincing, I suggest they turn to two stories from the latest Un ...! collection.
"Round The Bend" - a story that wondrously combines a son's embarrassment about the way his father earns his living (taxidermy) with a ruse to extort money out of drivers who are led to believe they have run over a cherished Mongolian Rat Catcher dog - could only have been devised by Jennings's macabre imagination. "Ticker", a moving story involving the death of a grandfather, proves the author capable of reining in that quirkiness when the subject calls for a more sober tone. But even here, the final impact of the story rests with Jennings's characteristic punchline. Highly recommended, for both existing fans and newcomers.
I've often wondered about those "fun fax files" that sell so well at book fairs (to the chagrin of those who'd rather see children buying a "proper book") but rarely surface afterwards. Well, the hero in Dad Alert! uses one throughout the tale. This is a short, crisply written novel about a cricket-loving father returning from St Lucia and the football-loving son who has never known him. It's ideal for the mid-primary age range.
Your Dad, My Mum is another richly amusing book about a returning father. The central situation may have been used scores of times before, but Hazel Townson proves that it as not been done to death. She has constructed a clever little comedy, based upon two parallel diaries and a third-person narrative that charts the ignominious return of Mr Jones, who is believed to have been cycling around the Far East, but in fact has never left the country. His son, Alan, has gone on hunger strike to stop his mother taking in a new partner, and Prunella, the partner's daughter, has taken a vow of silence. The narrative developed by the two diaries is somewhat more successfully conveyed than the one about Mr Jones, who is rather sidelined at the end.
The Mum Trap, Ruth Symes's second novel for Andersen Press is a tight, dialogue-driven story about two daughters' decision to give their dad, as a birthday present, an ad in the Lonely Hearts column of the local rag. Anna, a Year 8 girl, is the narrator. Gem, her sister, drives an electric wheelchair. The fact that Gem's disability at no point becomes a central issue of the novel is a token of Symes' self-assurance as a novelist. The laughs begin on page 3, with the girls in a sudden panic at the thought that one of their teachers might answer the ad.
Flossie Teacake's Holiday adds a new title to a series that Hunter Davies began nearly 20 years ago. Flossie, the plump, bespectacled 10-year-old who yearns to be slim and sophisticated like her older sister, and is able to become just that and more with the aid of a magical fur coat, has changed little since she was created, apart from a tendency to say "Gawd" and "nuffink" in an affected Cockney accent. Adults who know a little about Hunter Davies's family life will enjoy the "Flossie In Lakeland" chapter; children will welcome the fact that the earlier four titles have all been reissued.
Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex