One of the truly great discoveries for me this summer has been the Swedish author Ulf Stark. Last week I couldn’t resist telling you about his bittersweet exploration of identity, Fruitloops and Dipsticks, likely to be enjoyed most by kids in their early years at secondary school or there abouts.
Today, however, I want to tell you about a trio of books that will delight slightly younger children, all of them about a young boy, Ulf, his friendships, school and family life. Each is packed with humour and acute observations about relationships, between friends and enemies, and children and adults. They share an unpatronising approach to their readers, mirroring aspects of their own lives in a honest and yet thoughtful, nearly always funny, and sometimes heartbreaking manner. They struck me as the next step up from the naughty and adorable Nicholas books by Goscinny and Sempe – perfect for slightly older kids, who still love getting in to trouble but who can also appreciate meatier issues.
When we’re first introduced to Ulf, in My friend Percy’s Magical Gym Shoes, we soon discover he is chubby and poor at sports. But when a new boy, Percy, arrives at his school, Ulf finds someone he looks up to, someone he wants to emulate; Percy seems suave and full of self assurance, powers which apparently stem from his magical gym shoes. Ulf is determined to buy Percy’s shoes from him, so he too can be cool and confident. And indeed, once Ulf has the shoes, his life does become much more exciting as he and his new best friend get into all sorts of scrapes and japes. But these adventures are not appreciated by the adults around and Ulf starts to get a bad reputation. Does Ulf want to be known as a bad boy? Does he need to be so wild to gain the respect he wishes for from his peers? Will he and Percy manage to stay friends?
In My friend Percy & The Sheik we learn that Ulf’s father is a ham radio buff, and through his hobby has made contact with a sheik (True Fact: former King Hussein of Jordan was an amateur radio hobbyist and often chatted with ‘regular’ people all around the world). The sheik promises to visit Ulf’s father but will the trip come off? Will Ulf be the laughing stock amongst his friends? This second volume sees Ulf and Percy’s friendship cemented as they deal with bullying, a first crush, and the threat that Percy’s family will have to move away.
By the time we reach My friend Percy & Buffalo Bill the boys are 10, and 3 years into their friendship. They spend one summer together on a Swedish island at Ulf’s grandparents home and it turns out to be an amazing summer, the summer you dream of as a kid, building dens, taming wild horses, fishing and swimming around the island. But at the heart of this story is Percy and Ulf’s relationship with Ulf’s heartbroken grandfather. A curmudgeonly old so-and-so, Percy gains the grandfather’s respect by standing up to him, and gradually a friendship develops that in the end will bring tears to your eyes. I haven’t read many books which focus on male friendships that manage to be laugh out loud funny and also profoundly moving.
My friend Percy’s Magical Gym Shoes is one of the 1001 Children’s Books: You Must Read Before You Grow Up and I couldn’t agree more. Over the course of the three books, I particularly loved the nuanced exploration of different male friendships and relationships, between boys, fathers and grandfathers, whilst the mischievous antics of the boys had me giggling in delight. Find these books, and I’m sure you as adults will enjoy them, whilst kids, especially boys will utterly delight in both recognition and wishful thinking, whilst the stories will also give them food for thought about peer pressure, self belief and consideration of others.
As parents/librarians you may wish to know that these books do feature nudity (the boys know where to watch people sunbathing without clothes on), there is reference to porn magazines (hidden in Ulf’s older brother’s wardrobe) and some of the behaviour is perhaps not what you’d want your own kids to get up to (e.g. deliberate arson)… but, but, please don’t let this put you off seeking out these books (where these books receive low scores on GoodReads the reviewers have seemed to be blinded to all other aspects of the book by the nudity).
All three books are beautifully written, full of love, respect and kindness. The nudity is not aggressive or crude, although I might not suggest these books to many parents of 5 year olds (My friend Percy’s Magical Gym Shoes is listed in the the 5+ category in 1001 Children’s Books: You Must Read Before You Grow Up), but rather for kids a few years older (indeed, Outside In, an organisation which specialises in highlighting translated children’s literature suggests 9-11 year olds might appreciate these books the most).
The bottom line is that these are definitely books I love, I think you’ll love, and most importantly of all, I think children, especially older primary school boys, will love.
Ulf Stark will be in the UK in the Autumn as part of The Children’s Bookshow. The Children’s Bookshow is an organisation that arranges an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators across the UK. The tour takes place in the autumn and coincides with Children’s Book Week. Its aim is to foster a lifelong love of literature in children by bringing them the best writers and illustrators to inspire and guide them. Anybody can book tickets for any of the events, and schools can also book free workshops with the authors and illustrators taking part in the tour.
Disclosure: I received my copy of these books from the publisher. These reviews, nevertheless, reflect my own and honest opinions.