28/08/2003

Ordinary Jack (by Helen Cresswell)

I do like children's books. I enjoy classics, and my own childhood favourites, and I also enjoy a few authors whom I've only discovered since my sons were small. Helen Cresswell is the author of the very popular 'Bagthorpe saga' - and I dip into them every so often for a bit of light humour.

'Ordinary Jack' is about an eleven-year-old boy with a fair amount of intelligence and common sense, who has three highly-gifted (and rather boastful) siblings: William, Tess and Rosie. The books are written in the third person, but almost entirely from Jack's perspective.

In this first book, Jack is rather fed up that he does not seem to have any gifts. This is because his little sister Rosie has just beaten him in swimming, and is determined to crow about it. Jack acknowledges that she has done well, but dislikes the way that the rest of the family make such a fuss about it.

Mr Bagthorpe, father of the four children, is a television scriptwriter with a rather bad temper and a way of saying exactly what he's feeling, irrelevant of who is listening. He complains a lot when anything goes wrong... but then again, with the things that happen in his household, it's pretty amazing that he has kept his sanity at all.

Mrs Bagthorpe is a professional agony aunt, and does her best to hold the family together with traditions (such as birthday parties) being very important to her. She tries to have a kind word for everyone, but is rather disorganised. She believes in encouraging meaningful conversation around the table at mealtimes, which is a great ideal; unfortunately it usually means everybody talking with their mouths full about their personal achievements.

Grandma and Grandpa, Mr Bagthorpe's parents, live with the family. Grandpa is a strong silent type, who is somewhat deaf (and often chooses to be selectively deafer than necessary) and prone to come out with incongruous statements, which sometimes appear to be deliberate although the rest of the family do not realise it.

Grandma is a highly opinionated old lady who loves to argue, and will beat down anybody who disagrees with her by sheer strength of character and determination. The book opens on the day of Grandma's 75th birthday. Her cake - complete with 75 candles - features rather dramatically.

This book is really designed to introduce us to the Bagthorpe family, so the plot is not all that significant. It hinges mainly around the bright idea that Jack should pretend to be a mystic, and thus attract the attention of his family, so that nobody would think him ordinary or boring again. There are, of course, problems which lead to amusing situations and an exciting climax to the story.

There is a low-key 'message' to the book, too, alongside the humour and chaotic household. Jack learns that it's not always so good to be the centre of attention, and that being 'ordinary' does not make him inferior to his talented siblings.

I very much like Helen Cresswell's writing, which appeals both to younger children, and to teenagers and adults, despite the lack of much action.

I would recommend this and its sequels to any child or young teenager wanting something light but enjoyable to read. 'Ordinary Jack' also makes an excellent book to read aloud to a child of any age, since the humour appeals at so many levels. My sons both enjoyed these books from the time they were about seven or eight, and I still read them myself from time to time. 'Ordinary Jack' is one of the few books which can make me chuckle out loud in one or two places - on re-reading it this evening, I enjoyed it as much as ever.

(My longer review of 'Ordinary Jack' is published at the Ciao site)

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