2016 marks 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl with celebrations nationwide of his gloriumptious stories and characters. But of the many authors who have followed in his wake, which have brought the most fun, magic and laughter to children’s books? Nicholas Tucker chooses ten of the best heirs to Dahl.
How to Train Your Dragon
Cressida Cowell, Hachette, 214pp, 978 0 34099907 3, £6.99 pbk
Skinny Hiccup Horrendous Haddock 111 is not a natural hero. Dominated by his Viking chief father Stoick the Vast and the victim of his hated rival Snotlout, he now has to enlist for the notoriously dangerous Dragon Initiation Programme. This involves first capturing and then training your own dragon, and how Hiccup and his only friend Fishlegs achieve this takes up the rest of the book. Illustrated with the author’s own wildly funny drawings, this constantly entertaining story plus the many that came after is a must. Two film adaptations followed with a third promised for 2018.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Jeff Kinney, Penguin, 221pp, 978 1014132490 6, £6.99 pbk
Teenage Greg Heffley is one of life’s born losers but he is always up and ready for the next disastrous idea for improving his rock-bottom social reputation at school. His buck-tooth friend Rowley is even more hopeless. Their adventures are told in hilarious cartoon form by an American author with a universal sense of humour. This is the first book in a long series but any other title would do. No doubt about it: Jeff Kinney is a comic genius.
The Grunts All at Sea
Philip Ardagh, Nosy Crow, 272pp, 978 0 85763280 7, £5.99 pbk
One of four titles celebrating the Grunt family, the humour here successfully combines slapstick with the surreal as only this author can. Each page carries a verbal surprise but there is also a firm story line. This time the determined if unattractive Mr Grunt tries to transport a Person of Great Importance to a secret destination. A large reward beckons, but problems arise from a big-earringed cyclist. Axel Scheffler’s zany illustrations add to the fun.
The Last Dragonslayer
Jasper Fforde, Hodder & Soughton, 287pp, 978 1 44470720 5, £6.99 pbk
This is the first in a trilogy featuring Jennifer Strange, the fifteen–year old orphan manager of an employment agency for sorcerers. Magic is no longer profitable, with drain cleaner much cheaper than commissioning a spell. Yet Jennifer remains convinced that something evil is in the wind, and strives to marshal her grumpy band of out-of-work magicians for a final last effort. Jasper Fforde is a wonderfully inventive writer; he also is a master of comic one-liners. This hugely enjoyable book has two equally brilliant successors.
The Amulet of Samarkand
Jonathan Stroud, Random House, 462pp, £7.99, 978 0 55256279 9, pbk
Nathaniel is a magician’s apprentice. Tiring of his lowly status, he steals an amulet that summons up a powerful but ferociously bad-tempered djinni with extensive magical powers. Despite their terrible relationship they still manage to defeat an evil demon intent on world domination. Frequent footnotes explaining the ways of djinnis are as comic as the main text itself. Three more titles take these characters further along a narrative that brilliantly combines the scary with plenty of laughs.
John van de Ruit, Penguin, 398pp, 978 0 141 32356 5, £7.99 pbk
This fictional diary is the ultimate in getting even the most reluctant teenage reader totally hooked. John ‘Spud’ Milton, enjoying but more often enduring his first year at an elite all-boys boarding school in South Africa, tells it how it really is. Weird fellow-pupils, episodes of ghostbusting and teacher baiting, first tentative feelings for girls, all are recorded here by a teenager with a sharp eye for comic detail. Three more Spud stories followed, just as comic but with moments of poignancy too.
Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging
Louise Rennison, £6.99, Piccadilly Press, 160pp, 978 0 00721867 7, £6.99 pbk
The first of many stories featuring Georgia Nicolson, this semi-autobiographical novel unforgettably describes the highs and lows of pre-adolescence. Georgia lusts after ‘sex God’ Robbie, disastrously dyeing her hair after he tells her she is still too young to date. Further embarrassments follow in her search for social success, but never daunted she is always up for another attempt. Rude, caustic and outspoken, her honesty plus her stream of jokes make her excellent company. She later appeared in two film adaptations.
Holly Smale, HarperCollins, 378pp, 978 0 00748944 2, £6.99 pbk
Fifteen-year-old Harriet Manners knows a huge amount about everything except how to make friends. So when she is approached by a top fashion agent she jumps at the chance of transforming herself into someone hopefully more popular. What follows is a saga of highs but more often lows, with handsome model Nick remaining aloof despite all Harriet’s efforts. Clever, perceptive and endlessly witty, this is comic writing at its best, with three more titles following afterwards.
Carl Hiassen, Yearling Books, 292pp, 978 0 33041529 3, £6.99 pbk
Teenager Roy Eberhardt has moved to Florida and hates it. But one day he sees a mysterious boy running away from the school bus without books, backpack and even shoes. Determined to find out more, Roy follows him and ends up involved in a world of potty-trained alligators and burrowing owls. The author has written numbers of adult environmental thrillers but this one is for younger readers, and very funny it is too.Skink, Chomp and Flush, written after this title, are also highly recommended.
Hilary McKay, Hodder, 160pp, 978 0 34098904 3, £6.99 pbk,
The best humour in fiction always appears unforced, not a quality regularly achieved in the comic stories written by the two David’s, Baddiel and Walliams, which is why they are not included in this list. I would instead recommend any novel by Hilary McKay. Her deceptively gentle prose also contains many laugh-aloud moments to treasure. The natural heir to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, McKay’s six novels about the different characters in the eccentric Casson family are miracles of understated humour. In this story, Saffy discovers the truth behind her loving adoption in an original but highly satisfying way. There are four more equally outstanding stories in this series. .
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.