I had read a glowing review of The Strictest School in the World at Big A little a last month, so I was quite pleased when a review copy showed up in my mailbox (sent by that reliable provider of excellent books, Raab Associates). The Strictest School in the World lived up to my expectations. It's so much fun! It's a book aimed squarely at the 9-12 set, featuring lovably eccentric characters, larger-than-life bad guys, two independent-minded protagonists, and madcap adventures.
The story is set in Yorkshire, England in 1894 (the late Victorian Era). The two protagonists are fourteen-year-old Emmaline Cayley and twelve-year-old Robert Burns (also called Rab). Emmaline is sent from India, where she has grown up, to live with her Aunt Lucy in England, prior to attending boarding school. (There are definite echoes here of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, though Emmaline is a more independent thinker than either Sara Crewe or Mary Lennox.)
Emmaline is obsessed with creating a flying machine, even though she herself is afraid of flying. Imagine her delight when she meets the intrepid Rab, called Rubberbones because of his rubber-like ability to survive falls with nary a scratch. Rubberbones, who has dropped out of school to earn money for his family, is more than happy to be paid by Aunt Lucy to support Emmaline in her flying machine projects. And Rubberbones turns out to have an instinctive knack for aviation. Together, with the support of Aunt Lucy and her unconventional butler Lal Singh, the two spend the summer constructing flying machines. They have varying degrees of success.
Their happy world is interrupted, however, when Emmaline is sent away to school. The school that her mother has selected for her, sight unseen, has a reputation for being "the strictest school for girls in the world." Emmaline has difficulty adjusting, particularly after the relative freedom of her Aunt Lucy's house.
"St. Grimelda's made her think of the novels of Charles Dickens, with their slum conditions, mean relations, dashed hopes, and general aspects of brutal misery (and miserable brutality). But they were cheery tales compared with daily life at St. Grimelda's.
The girls themselves were beastly to one another. Since almost nothing enjoyable was allowed, girls tried to hide small things, like sweets and trinkets. Every piece of this "contraband" — as if it were smuggler's cargo — would be seized by older girls.
Strangely, though the girls spent a lot of effort being horrible to one another, they were extremely — in fact weirdly — obedient to the teachers, especially Mrs. Wackett and Matron. Teachers simply reminded the girls of "the consequences of misbehavior," and the girls shuddered, turned pale and jumped to attention. Or fainted."
(Above quotes from Chapter 9: A Dickensian Sort of Chapter)
Yes, St. Grimelda's school is a terrible place, filled with rules, privations, meanness and betrayal among the students, and an undisclosed punishment that leaves the girls gibbering with fear. Emmaline quickly realizes that she must find a way to escape. However, escape is not so easy. She's not permitted visitors, and her letters are screened. The castle is surrounded by a wall, and hardly anyone is allowed in or out. Emmaline has to reach deep within herself for bravery and ingenuity to find a way out.
Meanwhile, her scatterbrained but loving Aunt Lucy, and Lucy's loyal companions Lal Singh and Rubberbones, quickly realize from Emmaline's colorless letters that something is very wrong. They put aside everything else to travel to the school, and work from the outside to find a way to help Emmaline escape. They, and Emmaline, receive help from a variety of unexpected sources, but also encounter dangerous enemies, in their mutual quest to extricate Emmaline from St. Grimelda's.
There is a lot to like about this book. The author's voice is hilarious, with matter-of-fact recounting of tragedies, and sly insertions of humor. The naming of the characters reminds me a bit of Roald Dahl (e.g. Miss Sharpelbow, a terrifying teacher, and Professor Bellbuckle, a mad inventor). The plot, with loyal relatives trying to help a young girl escape from a prison of a school, reminds me of one of the main sub-plots in Eva Ibbotson's The Star of Kazan. However, The Strictest School in the World is more humorous and in tone, with more over-the-top behavior. The humor of the book keeps the Gothic overtones from ever being too much.
This book has examples of both loyalty and betrayal. Emmaline learns what true friendship means, and what it takes to trust someone (and when not to trust someone). The lengths that the people who love Emmaline are willing to go to to rescue her are heart-warming. The ending is very satisfying, too. I think that upper elementary school kids, both boys and girls, will love this book. I look forward to future books in the series.
Book: The Strictest School in the World: Being the Tale of a Clever Girl, a Rubber Boy and a Collection of Flying Machines, Mostly Broken
Author: Howard Whitehouse. Illustrated by Bill Slavin
Publisher: Kids Can Press
Original Publication Date: August 1, 2006
Age Range: 9-12
Source of Book: Raab Associates
Other Blog Reviews: Big A, little a (Kelly included this book among her Best Books of 2006, So Far), Zubon Book Reviews
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.