'Boy O Boy' review of Unseen from Australian Book Review

Unreal! Paul Jennings’ first collection of stories combining the supernatural and childish vulgarity is now thirteen years old, so it is likely that the siblings of those original readers will now be reading this current collection and finding the same appeal that has assured Jennings such a strong readership over more than a decade. It is not hard to see in this current set of  tales why the stories have maintained their committed following.

Apart from ‘Piddler on the Roof’, which appears to have been included for those who are fixated on the scatological, the collection is uniformly strong. In ‘One Finger Salute’, Digit is able to grow two new middle fingers (he lost his in a motor mowing accident) after eating the tail of Dropler, his pet droptail lizard, and the embarrassment and humour is created by where and how those phalanges shed themselves - haven’t you ever discreetly tried to rid yourself of an uncomfortable ‘wedgie’? The path of prepubescent love is generally rocky, but even more so when Alan discovers a shell with déjà vu, in ‘Seeshell’. The hand of fate however, has not bargained on some clever lateral thinking by Alan, his employers, Jacko, Johnno and Tommo, and some unexpected acting talent from the love interest, Shelley. Round the Bend is a gem of a story in which the well-mannered, heroic, wealthy Dad of Derek, he with the Mercedes is completely upstaged by the down-to-earth gruff, truck-driving Dad with the tacky, but useful occupation, not revealed until the very end. But you’ll be guessing! Keith in ‘Ticker’ has to put his fears aside after his Grandad’s death so that his Grandma can keep her promise. In doing so he discovers and ally in something that once terrified him. ‘Guts’ is veteran Jennings ghost material with jus the right blend of suspense, ghastliness and fear. That it was rather obvious, didn’t detract from the satisfying resolution. The pick of them for me was 'Shadows’, about acknowledging the darker side of ourselves, but with a wickedly subversive twist which puts the message where it belongs, behind the humour. ‘Squawk’ finishes the collection and appropriately is about redemption – and toilet seats, and a bossy parrot with compelling powers.

Unlike that other storyteller beloved of this age group, Jennings has none of Dahl’s misogyny or nastiness and doesn’t need it for his humour, which nevertheless can be darkly funny. ‘To be perfectly honest I have got the hots for Elaine. When she smiles her freckles all bunch up and it makes me feel like reaching out and touching them. With my eight fingers’. Most of the stories concern the underdog, which children, the lowest in the pecking order, can identify with readily and share in the triumph of success against the odds.

These are stories for and about boys. And I’m all in favour of such stories aimed at you male readers, stories full of adventure, suspense, action and icky bits which the experts assure us boys want or even need to persuade them to read. Jennings, however, is too smart and too good a writer to short change boys by providing only that type and level of narrative. His stories are also about the relationships between boys and their fathers who share experiences – even if it is only peeing together in the backyard – definitely male-only bonding stuff – boys, dads and grandfathers who are proud of each other, boys who are not afraid to say they love their Dad, boys who are scared and yet find hidden resources, who feel and think and art on behalf of others. Popular perception has it that this will not exclude girl readers who are happy to read stories about members of the opposite gender. There is the occasional female sibling as a companion in adventure, often more intrepid than the boy, or a protective girlfriend.

Jennings offers a lot to young emerging or tentative readers; fun, suspenseful, accessible, well crafted narratives, themes that echo the concerns and experiences of his young readership without ever preaching, a compassionate view of the world where awful things might happen and do, but in which the individual finds reassurance. Newly fledged readers need stories in which their predictions are confirmed before they learn that the real delights come when the writers surprise us. Jennings’ stories are perfect here as the patterns are familiar and hence, supportive, which the delight of the twist of the tail models the pleasure of the unexpected.

I once heard Jennings express sentiments something to the effect that he would stop writing for children when the title left to him was’Unreadable’. I vote the abolition of that word from the English Language.

Pam Macintyre is the editor of Viewpoint: on books for you adults

Reprinted with permission of Pam Macintyre