I cherish the idea that I am quite well-read in children's literature. Of course nobody today can really keep abreast with everything that is published, but I have always imagined that I have read the most important children's books from a number of cultures and languages. My initial interest was fantasy, so it took me some time to discover the pleasures of Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden and Heidi, and I have been working hard to fill the gaps. Therefore I was a bit worried when our children's literature reading group decided to choose Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings Goes to School. Conceited as I am, I couldn't imagine there was a classic I hadn't read. A classic worth reading.
Usually when someone suggests a book for the reading group it's because they like it. It means that when you read the book someone has chosen you try to see why this person liked it, or at least what may be intresting to discuss. I hadn't done my homework by the time we met, and it so happened that the person who had suggested it couldn't come, so there was the whole group hating this book and no one to defend it, until someone said, rather timidly, that it was actually funny. The rest of the group protested loudly. Humour is a very serious matter, it is not only culturally dependent - and our group is highly multicultural - but individual. I don't find Just William particularly funny. Except for one person, the group claimed that Jennings was not funny. Yet something in the advocate's description, accompanied by a few quotes, made me curious. Apparently, it was linguistic humour, not situational humour. A student gave me her copy with the comment that she never wanted to see it again. So the other night I gave it a chance.
Staffan came running from the kitchen anxious that I was having a bad cough attack - but I was laughing and just couldn't stop. I hadn't laughed so much over a book since I read Three Men in a Boat. Jennings - I am your fan club. How could I have missed this absolutely marvelous book? It was published the same year as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Once upon a time I made my way dutifully through Tom Brown's Schooldays and even forced my students to read it as a background to Harry Potter. Now I see that Harry Potter does not owe to Tom Brown, it owes to Jennings. How could I have missed it and why haven't I seen anyone mention it, for it must have been mentioned in every Harry Potter essay.
Here is a taster. I take all the trouble to type it.
"His name's Temple, and his initials are CAT, so naturally we call him Dog."
"But you didn't call him Dog, you called him Bod," argued Jennings.
"Give a chap a chance to get a word in," said Venables. "I haven't finished yet. It's a bit of a sweat calling him Dog, so we call him Dogsbody for short."
"But it isn't short," protested Jennings. "Dogsbody's much longer than Dog."
"Okay, then," replied Venables, logically, "it needs shortening. Bod short for Body, and Dogsbody short for Dog".
Is this where Neil Gaiman's Bod comes from?
There are twenty-five Jennings novels. My summer reading list is full.