Funny and not sopeculiar

29th August 2003 at 01:00
Michael Thorn finds laugh-a-minute novels for juniors

PONGWIFFY: The Spellovision Song Contest. By Kaye Umansky. Illustrated by David Roberts. Puffin pound;4.99. THE BEAK SPEAKS. By Jeremy Strong. Puffin pound;3.99.

FREE LANCE AND THE LAKE OF SKULLS. By Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. Hodder Children's Books pound;9.99. WHEN THE CIRCUS CAME TO TOWN. By Polly Horvath. Scholastic pound;4.99.

Hooray! A new Pongwiffy book. In this one, Spellovision - Witchway Wood's term for television - is a new fad, with programming still in development.

Kaye Umansky has her wicked way satirising lame scripts and a fair bit of fun playing with TV titles. The Spellovision soap opera? Gnome And Away, of course! A programme called Goblins In Cars enjoys a rosy patch, but soon everyone gets bored with all but the News and Pongwiffy suggests the Spellovision Song Contest to get people watching the box again. Her sidekick familiar, a hamster called Hugo, provides assorted deadpan humour from The Little Book of Hamster Wit and Wisdom.

Jeremy Strong's The Beak Speaks includes a fantastically funny, larger-than-life character - a Romanian called Miriana. As with most books by this author, there are laugh-out-loud one-liners on nearly every page, many of them courtesy of Miriana, who thinks a dog covered in spots is suffering from "German missiles". And when asked how she has managed to calm a wild Alsatian, she says: "Is old Romanian trick. My grandmother taught me. She is old Romanian." Narrated in alternate chapters by Dinah the mynah bird and by Mark, a vet's son, and with Nick Sharratt look-alike illustrations by Rowan Clifford, the book's humour is generated by a lively plot.

Raymond Chandler goes to Camelot in Free Lance And The Lake of Skulls, by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. The main character is a freelance (unbonded) knight down on his luck, looking to fill the time between one jousting season and another. Narrated in a hard-bitten, sardonic voice, this short, highly-illustrated novel is aimed at children of 10 upwards whose reading ability is some way behind their chronological age, but it could be equally enjoyed by word-savvy eight and nine-year-olds.

Polly Horvath's Everything On A Waffle was wonderfully fresh and different; so is her new book, When The Circus Came To Town. She has a unique voice, an oblique and whacky sense of humour, and a varied style that can do both sharp dialogue and long paragraphs. And behind the comedy lie thoughts about the relationship between fiction and reality. A writer who can do so much without coming across as heavy or pretentious has a rare talent.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm primary school, Hailsham, East Sussex

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