Boyface and the Uncertain Ponies by James Campbell is a book I picked up from the library for my son, Oscar last week. It looked like the kind of book he would enjoy. The synopsis read like a mash up of Andy Stanton’s Mr. Gum books, and John Dougherty’s Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face series, both of which he adores. He has caught up with both of these sets of books, and is always on the look out for a new series to enjoy. This is one of four books in the Boyface series currently available, and I had high hopes that he would be delighted.
He has not been, sadly. In fact, he read two chapters and then gave me the book back. I was quite surprised, so set aside an hour to read it last night to see what it was that didn’t work for him. He didn’t hate it, by the way. He just said it was ‘alright’, but not really for him.
From my own point of view, as an adult reader, and we always have to bear in mind that what adult readers think is marvellous, children often don’t, I found it fairly disappointing.
It tells the story of Boyface and his parents, who are Stripemongers. Stripemongering involves, for the most part, passing animals through a sort of quantum machine that alters them into other things. The machine can also be used for the purposes of interior decoration. In this story, Boyface’s dad has picked up a load of cut price zebras from someone down at the docks. He and his family have been putting them through the machine to remove their stripes, and then selling them as ponies. As the story opens, many of the ponies are glitching, forgetting they are ponies. Sometimes they turn back into zebras, sometimes other things. It is up to Boyface and his family to figure out what has gone wrong and fix it before they get lynched by the local population.
The elements of surreal comedy that work so well in Mr. Gum and Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face are all there, but they just don’t seem to gel so coherently. The opening of the first chapter smacked of a pastiche of Mr. Gum but without the sharpness and ear for language that allowed Andy Stanton to pull it off. In fact, there are a few places in this book where the sentences simply don’t make sense. I was not entirely sure whether this was down to the author or the proof reading.
There are some wonderful episodes. I liked the list of things that Boyface was allowed to do when he entered the family business, and the Tartan Badger is a great character, but there is so much going on here, and so many characters and interludes, and asides that the narrative sometimes gets lost and in the end seems secondary to the idea of cramming the book with as many hilarious jokes as possible.
I also found the section where Boyface’s friend Clootie Whanger (and the word Whanger here, is somewhat suspect, frankly), talks about her unhappiness at school, quite jarring. It was beautifully realised and a really interesting line of narrative, which then gets abruptly cut off, and doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the book at all, sitting uncomfortably next to its surreal whimsy.
I doubt, frankly, that these are the reasons my son didn’t want to continue with the book. He just didn’t think it worked for him. I suspect it might work for other children if they like the kind of books I’ve mentioned in this review. I would recommend it for confident readers aged 7-10. You could read it aloud to younger children as a funny bed time story. Each chapter is fairly short and they are divided into zebra ‘stripes’ rather than chapters. The illustrations by Mark Weighton are good and there are lots of them. It would make a good transitional or chapter book, particularly for reluctant readers. The book has lots of silly humour that will appeal, along with some rather rude sounding insults that will delight a child’s heart.