In this new column for our Happy Young Readers series, Kate de Goldi, the New Zealand Book Council's resident Reading Doctor and children's book specialist, offers reading remedies for children in answer to your queries.
Q. ‘In our school library it’s all about the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Children love the humour, the readability and the quirky illustrations. Can you recommend any books which have these features that we can move the children onto. One-off books are good but children do enjoy a series that they can get their teeth into, so ideas on those would be fabulous too.’
A. This is such an interesting challenge. Wimpy kid (WK) is a canny – and near unique – combination of elements: as you say, readability (short chunks of text, undemanding language, plenty of action, little description); humour (often near-slapstick); and simple but graphic illustrations. It’s also refreshingly realist (albeit a little satirical) and with a narrow canvas – mostly the ordinary doings of home and school, and all the complex relationships and pesky problems they present. Most cannily of all, it’s written in the first person so there’s a powerful sense of intimacy and identification with the hapless Greg. And, of course, it’s a series… I can’t think of anything else with precisely that formula (except the Aldo Zelnick series, see below) but there are plenty of books that have two or more of these elements…
WK’s appeal seems to be reasonably wide – good for reluctant readers around 8–10 but also read by younger children, and it’s attractive to both boys and girls. So I have two streams of recommendations below that, with luck, will cover the age range. (But, as a rule, I tend to be less interested in so-called age appropriateness than in individual reader interests and capacity.)
Comics/graphic novels/comic series
1. Asterix series by René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo and Tintin series by Hergé. These immortal books have great narrative drive, marvellous illustrations and sophisticated humour (Asterix has plenty of slapstick but also lots of language play). There are great casts of characters and inter-relationships. And there are heaps of titles in both series.
2. The Aldo Zelnick comic series by Karla Oceanak and Kendra Spanjer. This alphabetical series (Artsy-Fartsy, Bogus, Cahoots, Dumbstruck…) actually styles itself as the better, smarter Wimpy Kid! Very similar ingredients: first person narrative; ‘handwritten’ entries in a journal; black and white art (more developed than WK); 10-year-old boy amidst family, friends, school, community; humorous; and plentiful. The book production and design is a cut above the crowd. There’s a very good website too, with an audio-dictionary (to assist in pronunciation of any difficult words in the books!) and other activities for fans.
3. Big Nate series by Lincoln Peirce(Big Nate: In a Class by Himself, Big Nate: Strikes Again, Big Nate on a Roll and more). Comic stories. There are collections of the Big Nate comic strips too. Nate is in middle school (like WK) and a little non-conformist. He has good mates, a solo dad, a sister, an eccentric uncle, an annoying teacher and big ambitions. Like WK the settings are school and home, the relationships are very entertaining and young readers are sure to identify with Nate, warts and all.
4. The Treehorn Trilogy: The Shrinking of Treehorn, Treehorn’s Treasure, Treehorn’s Wish by Florence Parry Heide & Edward Gorey. This is a little more left-field but will appeal to readers whose funny bone is tickled by the surreal and the deadpan. The very funny – and ever-so-slightly disquieting – stories are delivered with a straight face and in the third person, which amps the humour wonderfully. Gorey’s illustrations are a perfect match. Treehorn is middle-school too, a slightly puzzled, slightly anxious only child with distracted, upper-middle class parents… The text is on the left-hand page of the book – landscape format - the illustrations on the facing right-hand page. Eight or nine years is a great age to introduce Edward Gorey to children…
5. Salt Water Taffy: The Seaside Adventures of Jack and Benny by Matthew Loux. (Five in this series so far.) The interlinked comic stories are about two brothers’ slightly fantastical adventures while holidaying on the coast of Maine. They’re funny and pacy, with lots of incidental information and a strong sense of place. The tone is an interesting fusion of classic children’s adventure story and The Simpsons or Family Guy.
6. Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan. Just a single book, but a series of stories all linked by Tan’s fascination with what might lie behind the ordinary surfaces of the domestic suburban world. The stories are by turns playful, fantastic, surreal, sweet. The illustrations invite lengthy contemplation. Children feature in most of the stories – often puzzled and wondering and fascinated. No knee-slapping humour but with much quirky appeal.
The books in the following list have a number of WK’s features – humour, readability, engaging child characters, realistic settings (usually home and school) – and some are loosely linked in series. A number of them are third-person narratives, which perhaps makes them seem a little less immediate and enticing to a reader habituated to the first person (an increasing tendency, I reckon) but it seems to me a good idea to encourage young readers to become conversant with both narrative styles.
1. Frindle, The Janitor’s Boy, A Week in the Woods, The Report Card, The Last Holiday Concert, No Talking, Lunch Money and Room One: A Mystery or Two by Andrew Clements. These are all part of Clements’ Schools series; the characters are all middle-graders. Extremely readable (good read-alouds for classes too) and funny. The child characters are winning and recognisable, the adults usually well-rounded too. Frindle is a classic: a story about a big subject – the life of language – without it ever seeming earnest.
2. The Jiggy McCue series by Michael Lawrence (15 and counting). Jiggy is slightly older than WK but the formula here is very similar: first-person narrative, school and home, mates and family, madcap, light-hearted, fast-paced, mostly Jiggy and his friends getting out of scrapes… Set on and around an English farm estate. The narrative is broken up with lots of dialogue and lots of short sentences, but with good vocabulary and some gentle social satire.
3. The Amber Brown series by Paula Danziger (and, since 2012, Bruce Colville and Eliabeth Levy). Amber Brown is slightly younger than WK – fourth grade mostly – so this series is possibly more for 7/8 year olds, and probably more appealing to girls. Narrated by Amber, these stories are an undemanding but gently amusing tour through the trials and tribulations (at home and school) of a contemporary Everygirl. The series has been revived recently by Colville and Levy and looks set to go on forever…
4. How to Train your Parents, Help! I’m a Classroom Gambler and Trust Me, I’m a Troublemaker by Pete Johnson. Just three of the more than 50 titles from this writer, who specialises in humorous novels for 8–12 year olds. The first two are written in first-person diary entries, the third is a dual narrative – highly readable and engaging. Again, home, school, tiresome parents, tricky teachers, good friends, mini-disasters that resolve happily…
5. The Cricklepit School series (The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, Charlie Lewis Plays for Time, Gowie Corby Plays Chicken and Just Ferret) by Gene Kemp. These are classics of children’s literature. Set in a fictional Exeter school, each focuses on a different character but references characters from the other books. Sir, the devoted but exasperated teacher, is a lovely creation. The stories are dialogue-heavy, action-packed, funny and swift reads, with a very particular sense of place (the city and its ancient history is a recurring but lightly sketched theme). Kemp has a very particular narrative voice that won’t appeal to all but the stories have a depth and complexity (around adult–child relationships particularly) that a number of the others lack.
6. My Homework Ate My Homework, Lucky Cap and Outstanding in my Field by Patrick Jennings. Jennings is a perfect middle-grade novelist – his offerings are varied (realism, some animal fantasy, ghost stories, teen fiction) but humour and gentle irony are his strong suit. Like WK, school/home settings, first-person narrations, short chapters and sentences, an abundance of dialogue, lots of action – and lots of domestic animals.
7. The Cartoonist and The 18th Emergency by Betsy Byars. Both these fabulous books have home and school settings; the characters are middle grade and battling different problem. Byars is particularly good at writing about serious matters (family breakdown, anxiety, friendship troubles, trauma) with humour. The narrations are third person but there’s great dialogue, especially between the child characters. Classics.
I would like to acknowledge the website www.goodreads.com, which I have consulted for prompts and supplementary information.
Kate De Goldi is an award-winning short story writer, an author of young adult fiction, a children’s book author and a writer of journalism pieces. De Goldi also presents book reviews regularly on radio and television. She won the American Express and Katherine Mansfield Memorial awards for short stories, as well as the New Zealand Post Book of the Year Award in 2005 and 2009. She was named an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate for 2001. The 10pm Question (2008) was shortlisted for and won the Young Adult section of the 2009 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Find out more about Kate de Goldi in her Book Council Writers file: http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/degoldikate.html