Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Simon Cup's Box by A.B. Syed

Review of Simon Cup’s Box

Written by: A. B. Syed
Narrated by: Mark Topping
Length: 1 hr and 5 mins 

Briefly: Simon Cup, accident prone schoolboy and the bane of the woodwork teacher’s career, startles everyone by not only completing a project in class, but in doing it in one hour and producing something of magical beauty: the box.
Simon Cup is a year eight boy in a British school. I’m not sure what age he would be, as I think British schools run on slightly different terminology from what I’m used to, but my best guess is around 12. I’m assuming the high school setting was necessary to support the plot’s need to have the main characters dealing with different teachers for different subjects. Other than that, the story would have fitted perfectly well in a primary school setting. In tune with the mid-grade readership, Simon and his schoolmates are children rather than teenagers in their speech and behaviour.

Simon is one of those accident-prone but well-meaning boys who have problems concentrating and whose very presence can set off a chain reaction of comic disaster. This attribute of Simon’s is played up with relish by both author and narrator so it seems perfectly natural that boys who fall into a puddle of spilled glue should end up having to cut their trousers free of the floor. This slapstick comedy keeps the story bubbling along so the underlying themes, of friendship, solidarity and tolerance, never become overt.

The storyline is original and not too predictable but also manages to riff on a number of familiar fantasy ropes. There are wishes, rules, a grumpy psammead-like creature (the Mid Numph ), a mystery and some sleuthing, a rescue and a come-uppance. There was just one point at which I thought the author had possibly used the wrong item (for want of another word!) because its effectiveness was greater than I would have expected. On the other hand, maybe the British-made versions of these items are different from the ones I’ve used.

Simon Cup’s Box is a wonderfully entertaining mid-grade novel; a mix of fantasy and school story. I listened to the audio-book version and found the story well complemented and enhanced by the narrator, who has just the right matter-of-fact tones to match the style. This style is very British to my ears in that the characters are presented with all their quirks and the authorial voice is not afraid to give the odd comment. Although Simon is the main protagonist, Mr Joyce the woodwork teacher is also right in there with the action and both of them are seen somewhat from the outside. We know their thoughts and conclusions, but we also have observations from the author. This omniscient point of view is increasingly rare in modern children’s books and I found it a refreshing change from the “tight” POV in most stories at this level. The author’s decision to include Mr Joyce and his fellow teachers as characters in their own right (rather than simply as teachers seen through the kids’ eyes) was one of the features I liked best about this book. I also liked the attention to detail as in the description of the teachers’ huddle, and the Mid Numph itself.  I was somewhat reminded of one of my favourite author’s way with words. The late, great Diana Wynne Jones might well have imagined a teacher like Mr Joyce.

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  1. This sounds hilarious! I like that it comes as an audiobook as well - handy for travelling with kids.

  2. This sounds hilarious! I like that it comes as an audiobook as well - handy for travelling with kids.