The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross

Dinah, an eleven-year-old girl who has spent her whole life in a children’s home, gets fostered by Hunter family, which already sports two young boys, Lloyd and Harvey. Things get off to a rocky start, but the three eventually become loyal friends when forced to confront something terrible that is happening at their school. All the pupils, bar a handful, are the neatest, tidiest, brightest, most well-behaved children you could ever meet. You could also say they’re the most joyless bunch of kids you could ever meet. And what can Lloyd and Harvey do when Dinah starts becoming just like them?

Being a horror movie veteran, my first thought was this is The Stepford Children for a child audience. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, eh? The novel doesn’t score many points on the originality front, but there’s no denying it’s an enjoyable ride. Something dramatic and interesting happens in every chapter. The prose is very snappy and easy to read. Descriptiveness is at about the right level for kids, though sometimes Cross is a little too free with her adverbs. Call me a nit-picker but I wince every time I see an adverb which describes something already glaringly obvious, e.g. “Right, Smart Alec,” Eddie Hair said sarcastically.

Briefly discussed within the story is the idea of there being two kinds of teaching. One, where we are taught to remember a bunch of facts and figures so that we can regurgitate them later, zombie-style. The other type, where we are actively encouraged to think for ourselves and solve problems.

In terms of the characters, I was pleased to see some realistic childhood shortcomings coming through. There was Harvey, the easily scared one, often to the point of tears, and Lloyd, a natural leader constantly jealous for recognition amongst his friends. However, I found it hard to believe any kid would come out with an exclamation like “Suffering crumpets!” or “Scarlet sausages!” or “Plum-coloured pumpkins!” Young Lloyd had a seemingly never-ending supply of these witticisms, which I thought only served to make him a less realistic child.

Despite my niggling criticisms, I found this to be a enjoyable light-hearted read. It’s definitely one for the sub-teen market though, where I have no doubt it will be much loved.

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