You're a Bad Man, Mr Gum! by Andy Stanton

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You're a Bad Man, Mr Gum! by Andy Stanton

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A brilliantly inventive telling of a quirky story that gallops past doggy-dos and other childish treats to a fully entertaining level of odd. It and its sequels would make a lovely gift set.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 144 Date: August 2006
Publisher: Egmant Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1405223102

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The village of Lamonic Bibber has a new visitor – a huge, friendly dog. So friendly in fact that even the cats have at last found a dog they can like. As have the children, who have taken to having rides round town on his back. When not being friendly to allcomers, Jake the dog is a great fan of demolishing gardens in typical dog fashion. And the best garden for that is the best garden of all, that owned by the smelly, beardy, old, odd loner called Mr Gum.

His isn't the best garden in town for the usual reasons, however. No, his reason for keeping his green fingers' results in tip-top condition is that if he doesn't, a fairy sparks to life in his bath-tub, gathers up a frying pan and prangs him round the head with it. Of course.

Mr Gum is forced to go on a mission of revenge, that handily steps over the, er, special gifts Jake likes to leave, and covers mad butchers, lemon meringue, magic chocolate treasure, the most bizarre trio of village yokels that come across as the world's least with-it Greek chorus, the difference between BARK! and BARK!, and so much more.

And not only is the completely inventive detail thrust into the story with a crow-bar and a bottle of ketchup, so the telling itself is utterly off-kilter. The narrator has to harangue himself to continue to actually tell any story at the end of chapter one, and then decides chapter two needs inventing to make it separate. Chapter five ends with every detail of the thrillingly secret information that is being kept over as a suspenseful surprise for the start of chapter seven.

Never has anything so post-modern been given such glowing praise from the seven-to-ten year olds, as in one forepage here. And I can fully see why. There's such a brilliance to the scatter-shot telling here, taking in maths puzzles, song lyrics of marvellous awfulness, nicely done changes in typography, and the handiest of maternal advice (Don't cut your legs off with a breadknife). It serves as the most quotable book, but as it is rather short – the great expanse of (smudged, off-white) blank on each page, which loses it five stars for value, makes it easily read in under an hour – there would be very little of it left were I to offer more of my favourite examples.

And discover the rest of it you most certainly should. It whizzes past, and does so incredibly effortlessly. Never is there the feeling of things being forced, or made daft with unreasonable result, however convoluted the wordplay, invented the word, or unlikely the event. It remains such a fine condensation of the odd to make anyone want to enjoy it – and that includes those way beyond the under-twelves it is aimed at.

The first sequel, Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire, loses the post-modernism bits, and I guess is actually a bit lower on the joke count, but I still feel like four and a half stars is the only option – if only because of the manky seagulls that go for tattoos and start smoking. A gingerbread man, all of 15.24 centimetres tall, carries with him a biscuit tin of money, which inspires Mr Gum and his friend to become dastardly thieves. And part of the pleasure at least is in seeing which large features, and which tiny details from the first book, are set to return as recurring jokes.

Book three, Mr. Gum and the Goblins, has many more awful songs (all for valid reasons – a character wants them in the story), and goes back to the post-modernism for a happy medium. The twee dial gets turned past the normal ten when an apple-juice drinking rabbit enters the fray, and Polly and co must counter a Goblin King who looks, talks and acts nothing at all like Mr Gum.

Oh, sorry, yes he does.

And then there is Mr Gum and the Power Crystals, which is all we're going to get until late 2008. Boo hiss. This one features lots of snurfling, Polly's full name again (yay!), and nine chapters in a row with the same name. Oh, and crunchy little leopards. Certainly a four and a half stars, again; only the third one gets 4 – I was too shy to mention it in its hearing.

The first book has the parents of Lamonic Bibber threaten their children with the name of Mr Gum – he will come and shout at your toys and leave slime on your books!. It's books like these no discerning child will want slimed – a threat indeed. The pictures are just right too – a scratchy, low-rent Scarfe style that perfectly merges with the throwaway sense so much of the humour has. The whole series has a brilliant Dahliesque quality to it in every aspect, and I really appreciated the luck involved with my picking the first ones off the library shelves.

It's not quite so way out but if you like this type of book then you might enjoy Stone Goblins by David Melling.

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