Once in a great while I get a little bored with the usual children’s book tropes. Another new kid in school who meets a seeming outcast and bonds with them? Whoopie. A foster kid who seems prickly but has a heart of gold? Woo. Two boys in swinging 1960s London defeating a rabbit-obsessed villain intent on making people’s pants fall down? I . . . . wait, what? Back up a bit. What was that? You see, once in a great while I forget about being bored with the usual children’s book tropes when I find myself walloped upside the head something as original as Stephen Swinburne’s Wiff and Dirty George, particularly the first installment, The Z.E.B.R.A. Incident. If weird is good (and it certainly can be) then it is fair to say that Wiff and Dirty George are doggone great.
When we first meet our intrepid heroes, they are without pants. Not of their own volition, mind you. One minute they’re taking the early train to London, as per usual, and the next thing they know every person in their railway car has discovered that their skirts, trousers, and other legwear is cascading downward thanks to the evil machinations of a man in a rabbit suit. That’s the first indication that Wiff and Dirty George are in the middle of a full-fledged mystery. Someone is behind the pants falling incident, and our two heroes are determined to get to the bottom of it. Along the way they meet the mad genius Basil, his ward the mad-in-a-different-way Daphne, and they’ll discover a plot that threatens the very Queen of England and that only they can thwart.
Okay, you know what this reminded me of, though I can’t imagine why that would be? The Three Investigators. In both cases you had boys in the 1960s (one is historical, one was contemporary at the time) running around solving mysteries. And there’s also the fact that this is a children’s novel starring teens. That used to be a whole lot more common back in the day. Since the rise of the YA novel, however, it feels as if librarians, booksellers, and even publishing companies themselves figure that if a book contains teenage characters then it must be marketed to teenage readers. That’s why you see so many twelve-year-old protagonists these days. But teens have all sorts of advantages over tweens when it comes to novels like this one. They can hop trains on their own and no one so much as blinks. They can battle villains and have crushes and do all the kinds of things kids wish they could do but can’t yet. And really, between the dirt eating and the falling trousers in this book, this is kids fare through and through. Find your YA angst elsewhere.
As settings go, 1960s London is an interesting choice for an adventure novel of this sort. It’s a happening place, of course, but there’s not much in this book that’s particular to the time period aside from the lack of technology and the young Queen. Be that as it may be, the time affects the tone of the book more than anything else. I can’t say if it feels like the 60s in this book. I wasn’t alive then. But it certainly does feel like a world apart from our own, and when you’re dealing with creepy scientists and dragonfly-shaped flying machines you need a bit of distance. I suspect too that this is merely the first title in an ongoing series and that we will be seeing far more Wiff and Dirty George in the future. Perhaps those tales will make a little more use of the decade. We shall see.
In terms of characters, you’ll like your heroes. They are adequately differentiated, for which I was grateful. I was particularly taken with Daphne, though. This would be the ward of the bunny-sotted Basil, but she’s not a true villain. She’s not even adequately malicious. More a benign obstacle to get around. There’s more than a drop of Luna Lovegood to that girl too. She has an interesting wide-eyed take on things. This is never clearer than when the book takes a moment to describe Daphne’s Perfect Day. And I confess, it sounded rather charming, what with all the tea drinking, Casablanca watching, and stargazing. You understand why Dirty George might be taken with her, even if her loyalties do lie in the wrong place.
I’d love to end this review by comparing this book to similar books like it, but that would be difficult, as I can’t think of anything along the same lines. It’s an action, adventure, historical, psychedelic dream involving sentient worms. And it’s British. Can’t forget that. Basically, I’d hand this to the kid that claims they’ve seen it all. The one who says you can’t surprise them anymore. Or maybe just the kid who wants something fun and out of the ordinary but doesn’t like the Goth/Snicket vibe of a lot of alternative realistic fiction for kids. This is a book that doesn’t slot neatly into a category. It’s probably why folks will enjoy it so. Good times.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from author for review.
Note on the “About the Author”: There’s a bittersweet mention at the end of this book that reminded me, not a little, of a situation involving Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. In that book the author wrote of a childhood friend he hadn’t seen for years. Then, far away, that friend’s son was assigned Ray Bradbury’s book in school and through this connection the two old friends met once again. In the case of Wiff and Dirty George, Swinburne reminisces about his own Dirty George pal from his youth and ends by saying, “I lost track of my English friend, went to college, married my sweetheart from New York, moved to Vermont, and grew up to write books. If you meet someone named George with a scruffy past, let me know.” I hope someone does.
Other Blog Reviews: Charlotte’s Library
Professional Reviews: Kirkus (bottom of the page)
Misc: Download the first three chapters here, if you like.