The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross is now marketed as a modern classic of children’s literature. It quite often features as a reader in schools, and is a permanent fixture in school libraries.
I, to my shame, had never read it, and so decided to address it by reading it yesterday.
What did I think?
Well. I think its title as a modern classic is actually well deserved. It is very well written, has an excellent plot and characters and is timeless enough to be relevant whenever it is read.
It tells the story of three children Dinah Glass, a foster child from a children’s home, and her two new siblings, Lloyd and Harvey. Lloyd and Harvey go to a school where things are not as they seem. All the children are well behaved. Eerily well behaved. The prefects rule the school with a rod of iron, and the headmaster is a fearful figure.
Lloyd, Harvey and a handful of other children are not like this. They are excluded from the mysterious things that go on after lunch in the school hall. They are ostracised and punished for misdemeanours. They are watched like hawks.
Over time they have learned to keep their heads down and stay as much out of trouble as possible.
When Dinah arrives, the careful order of the school is upset. Dinah is too clever, too different and asks too many questions. She is expected to be one of the ‘sheep’ students but manages to uncover what is actually going on, and with her, Lloyd and Harvey are drawn into a plot to unmask and discredit the headmaster.
What really makes this book work is the palpable air of menace in the text. The headmaster is really very creepy. The punishments dished out to the children are horrible and horrifying and there is a real sense throughout the book that the balance of power could tip at any moment. It is not clear, right until the end, that the children will win, and even then the ending is left suitably open for the headmaster to reappear, which he does in the sequels. There are three more books in the Demon Headmaster series, which develop the story further.
I would recommend this book to Key Stage Two students, aged 8 to 12, both boys and girls. If you are expecting a child to read it alone then you need to vet the copy they have, not because the material is disturbing or inappropriate, but because, as is often the case with older, ‘classic’ books, the text tends to be smaller in font, the lines closer together and the whole thing a very dense read. Even though the book in the Puffin version is only 140 pages long, there is a lot of text per page, and if a child is not sufficiently good at orienting themselves on the page they will find this a hard read. There are newer versions out there, and they may well be easier reads, but most schools I’ve come across tend to have the older copies, which are only really suitable for very confident readers.
This would be a fantastic book to do as a class read. There are interesting parallels pointed out by Dinah in the book with the text 1984 by George Orwell, and it would be fantastic to do work on sections of text from both books.