In this comedy drama for children, Jay is looking forward to the greatest summer holiday ever. Having fostered two brilliant friendships in the book’s prequel – My Big Mouth – Jay can’t wait to begin weeks and weeks of hanging out with his two totally awesome besties. Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond his control (involving family tragedy and football obsession) Jay suddenly finds himself facing up to an entire summer holiday with neither of his friends, a grumpy teenage sister, an aged sleepy pet dog and a busy mum who’s working nights.
Just as life couldn’t get any more miserable, Jay’s mum teams up with his favourite teacher to convince Jay that he must join the local secondary school’s summer arts camp. He’s frightened by the idea of socialising with new people (especially older children) but begins to feel more positive about the camp when he learns that his cool new neighbour over the road – Pam – is going to be there too.
Like My Big Mouth, Summer School is written as a monologue, which Jay delivers to the reader with total transparency and hilarious turns of phrase. Jay constantly asks us, directly, to imagine how he is feeling and to think about what we would do in his situation: how would you tell a cool girl you liked her? What would you do if your tough older sister asked you to keep a secret for her? It’s a powerful device that draws the reader very close to the character, and even children who missed Jay’s first novel will quickly feel like he’s a close friend.
Jay is at his most entertaining when describing the many disasters in his life. He does a brilliant (and very funny) job of using melodrama to make life’s little problems seem devastating. This is characterised most of all by Pam’s pet macaque, whose fondness for Jaffa Cakes and petty burglary mean that he soon becomes Jay’s nemesis.
Hiding behind Jay’s trivial problems is a genuine sadness, though. His dad has abandoned the family and Jay does not know where he has gone. His struggle with coming to terms with such a serious challenge are expertly contrasted with the day-to-day embarrassments and neuroses that all young readers will recognise. Jay begins to see (or imagine he is seeing) glimpses of his father around town, and does all he can to avoid confronting his emotions.
A few sci-fi-loving readers may be disappointed by the very minor role that cyborgs play in the story – given its title – and the long form monologue style won’t be to absolutely everyone’s taste. For the vast majority of readers, though, Summer School will be an absolute joy: funny, heartfelt and charming.