“You’re a Bad Man, Mr.Gum,” Andy Stanton
A friend of mine in Japan, shortly after having her first baby and shortly before I decided to rejoin the real world, asked me one of the sweetest questions I have ever been asked:
“How can I get my baby to read like you do?”
I didn’t know the answer, and still don’t, but I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of it had to do with my parents encouraging me to catch the book bug early in life. Kids’ books played a massive role in my life growing up, from being enrolled in school book clubs to being allowed to read at the dinner table, (where each member of my family was ensconced behind their own personalised reading material, be it newspaper, magazine, sci-fi novel or comic).
It is only in recent years that I have gravitated back towards children’s literature, and I’m still not sure why. At times, I tell myself it is research in case I ever decide to try my hand at writing a kids’ book myself; at times it is because the line between ‘children’s’ literature and ‘adult’ literature, (it is a literature law that these two terms must be employed between quotation marks, even when using them in speech, to indicate that you’d be foolish to try to categorically categorise them), is blurred to a crisp; but mainly it is probably because I am still just a big kid.
At last year’s Hay-on-Wye Literature Festival I was therefore just as excited at meeting some of my favourite authors for the youth audience, (wow, this gets convoluted: can we just agree that we all know ‘kid’s’ literature isn’t just for kids, and use the term? Thanks), as I was to rub shoulders with some of the more distinguished guests. It was also a chance to find new authors, and after an hour watching Andy Stanton entertain a room-full of mini people and their equally amused parents and guardians, I had found one I wasn’t in a hurry to let go of.
Apple, in an attempt to promote the use of iBooks on their magical machines, had been distributing free copies of five eBooks to Hay attendees, and it was therefore through a screen rather than a page that I first discovered Stanton‘s phenomenally successful Mr.Gum series with the hilarious ‘Mr.Gum and the Goblins.‘ The raggedy, playful illustrations, by David Tazzyman, transported me in a madeleine-like flash to my Dahl-reading days and the scribblings of the legendary Quentin Blake, and the story…well, the story…
I have a second, signed book from the 8-strong series, ‘Mr.Gum and the Dancing Bear,’ (it didn’t seem right to ask Andy to sign my iPad screen…), but with a 2-year-old niece visiting in a few months, I couldn’t resist picking up the first in the series when I saw it, sitting teasingly on a shelf in a charity shop on one of my strolls this week, (especially at 99p, approximately $1.50 for our trans
exualatlantic readers, or a third of what I had minutes earlier spent on a caramel frappuccino). She can chew and dribble on these pages all she wants: I know I have.
So, what’s it all about? Silliness, mainly, with a subtle undercurrent of the subversion of literary traditions and genres, to keep parents happy. Don Quixote for the under-10’s, in other words. Like a child with a room full of bunny rabbits, Stanton clearly loves words, and loves playing with them: the stories contain characters with caricatured Dickensian names like ‘Mrs.Lovely’ and ‘Nathaniel Surname,’ and he just lets his imagination and his linguistic sense of fun run wild whilst charting the bizarre antics of the villainous, bearded Mr.Gum, his cohort in nastiness Billy William the Third, (butcher), and their run-ins with the various nice folk of Lamonic Bibber.
At times he really makes you stop and think about all of the clichés we use and read every day, twisting language and giving it a nasty Chinese burn until it admits that it didn’t really mean what it had just said:
“He did a sort of bouncing run and in no time at all he was over it. Well, obviously not in no time at all, of course it took some time. But not much…”
But most of the time, he is just mixing registers and confounding expectations in a most Milliganly way, causing me to laugh out loud far more often than I would have expected in a widely spaced, large-print, 160 page book, (not including the Secret Bonus Story which definitely isn’t at the end of the book).
“At last Jake came to the spiky fence that surrounded Mr.Gum’s dirty house. It might have kept other dogs out. But Jake was one of those magnificent beasts who know not fear nor hesitation nor how to scramble eggs properly…”
“Mr.Gum hardly noticed the walk home, mainly because he took a taxi…”
There is even time for a thinly-veiled dig at Dan Brownesque cliff-hanger literature when Chapter 6 ends thuswardly:
“…this chapter ends with me not telling you that Polly was sitting outside the cottage of Friday O’Leary…And with me not telling you that he is one of the heroes of this tale. Ha ha, I am keeping that information to myself and you will have to wait till chapter 7 to find it out. That is what is known as suspense.”
Laughs, giggles, chuckles, guffaws, some fun with literature, fiction and fonts, and all within the space of less than an hour (or so, how am I supposed to know how fast you read?). Dan Brown vs Andy Stanton? Don’t make me laugh. Or rather: do…