Exaggerated characters, a fast-moving plot and slapstick humour are the hallmarks of Strong’s stories. But what makes this book so enjoyable and gives it an edge is its swipe at current teaching methods. It takes place for the most part in a school where the school day is broken into tidy bits and dominated by a timetable allowing just three minutes for creative writing and one minute twenty seconds for a loo break. It is, in fact, a school run like a battery farm, as the title suggests.
Tim is frustrated, horribly aware of the boring life he and his family lead. He is shy, has only one friend and is madly in love with classmate Sophie Goodsole. His mother is a librarian, obsessed with sticking seashells onto flowerpots; his father works for the Food Standards Agency and plays with model trains in the evenings. School is as tedious and frustrating as home life. The headteacher, Mr Dedman, has banned imaginative thinking in favour of timetables and rote learning. For all this, Tim has a rich imagination. He escapes into a fantasy world in which he as dashing hero rescues Sophie from all manner of danger. These fantasies punctuate the narrative, leading the reader to suspect that Tim is far from being the bored and passive character he wishes us to believe in.
Things come to a head when graffiti hits the school walls. Who’s the culprit, and why the scribbles about his crush on Sophie – and, even more mysterious, about battery farming? As the plot twists and turns, it is the imaginative part of Tim that takes over, providing the catalyst for change that results in Tim’s father being revealed as an undercover officer, Mr Dedman as a criminal, and the pupils finally breaking loose and going free-range – with all the freedom, enjoyment and creativity that that entails. This is a thoroughly enjoyable and very funny book.