Mr Gum and the boy wonders

29th February 2008 at 00:00
Evil talking crystals, a classmate who eats dead pigeons and a boy who finds fame with chickens feature in Sarah Fletcher's pick of the new children's novels in time for World Book Day on March 6

Mr Gum and the Power Crystals. Andy Stanton. Illustrated by Andy Tazzyman. Egmont, pound;4.99

Unless you've contracted a terrible illness and are hallucinating your way through the afternoon, you just don't find books like this very often. Witty and unusual, the Mr Gum series - of which Mr Gum and the Power Crystals is the fourth - features a cast of evil talking crystals, a gin-soaked grandmother and a fairy that hits the villainous Mr Gum with a frying pan for messing up the garden.

Andy Stanton's style is refreshingly different; scruffy Mr Gum shoots out of bed "like a guilty onion", and he closes in upon his victim "slowly, like a pair of horrifying toenails". It might sound odd to compare Andy to John Milton - I'm pretty sure Paradise Lost missed out the bit about horrifying toenails and guilty onions in the ultimate battle between good and evil (which is a shame, if you ask me), but this is a great starting point for teaching pupils about literary devices and creative influences.

If this is a bit much for a seven to nine age range, you can just read Mr Gum for the story. Either way, the series is hugely entertaining and children will love it - and you might even be able to slip a bit of Milton in there somewhere.

Spud. John Van de Ruit. Penguin, pound;6.99

This fictional diary of a boarding school in apartheid South Africa makes me vaguely grateful for my own car crash of an education - it was nothing on the experiences of Spud, the eponymous teen hero of John Van de Ruit's excellent first novel.

In a series of diary entries, Spud relays comical tales of his deranged family, a maid running an illegal alcohol racket from the back yard, and various delinquent classmates who you'd leave the country to avoid. This is organised anarchy, and it's brilliantly funny.

Set in 1990 as Nelson Mandela is freed from his 27-year imprisonment by the South African government, Spud is politically aware and tackles apartheid in a sensitive and approachable way.

Mandela's release sends Spud's father into a spiral of hysterical terror that "the Communists are taking over". He boards up the windows and forces guests to enter the house through a hole in the roof - straight into the lavatory.

By dealing with the nation's history through comedy, John makes it accessible to his teen audience and doesn't drag the reader into an endless debate as to who the good guys really are.

This is great, as young readers won't find it a struggle to get through; plus, it leaves more room for Gecko, a boy who screams and vomits in equal measure, Vern, who talks to his stationery when no one's looking, and Mad Dog, who eats dead pigeon out of his locker and keeps accidentally breaking his classmates' arms.

Spud shows that, whatever great political backdrop school life is set against, the daily routine of mad parents and even madder classmates is still crucial and formative and, best of all, funny.

Chicken Dance. Jacques Couvillon. Bloomsbury, pound;6.99

Do you ever suspect you would have more friends, love and amusing games with wild pigs if you could just become a chicken expert, win a chicken awareness contest and attain chicken-related fame? That's what happens to Don Schmidt, the 11-year-old hero of this touching tale by Jacques Couvillon.

Don, the unfortunate owner of parents who are more interested in fried chicken and TV advertisements than their child, carries echoes of Roald Dahl's Matilda. And anyone who ever threatened to phone Childline when they felt a searing injustice at their parents' treatment will identify with his plight.

His mother, obsessed by nail varnish and indignation that the local hairdresser doesn't have bananapineapple-scented shampoo, finally notices him when her neighbours offer her freebies in return for the eggs of the chickens she owns but despises.

Suddenly Don is thrown into a world of minor fame and playground popularity, but is it all it's cracked up to be? With the added mystery of a deep, dark family secret, Don and his chickens make for a clucking good read (an awful pun, I know, but I just couldn't resist).

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