An unusual and original take on a traditional school story that will appeal to children aged up to about 11.
Poppy Pym is leaving the only home she’s ever known (in Madame Pym’s Spectacular Travelling Circus) to become a boarding school student at Saint Smithen’s School. And, if starting school for the first time at age 11 isn’t enough, Poppy and her new friends – Kip and Ingrid – find themselves in the middle of a mystery. Dangerous accidents start to occur at Saint Smithen’s the moment a temporary exhibition of Egyptian artefacts enter the school. While everyone else attributes these to the Pharaoh’s curse, Poppy and her friends are determined to discover who is really causing the accidents. Then, when the priceless ruby at the heart of the collection is stolen, their investigation broadens as they try to uncover the thief.
‘Poppy Pym and the Pharaoh’s Curse’ has almost all the elements of a classic boarding school story – a collection of eccentric teachers, close-knit friendships, and a mystery investigation that has to be squeezed in between lessons. The only thing it lacks is the traditional school bully or jealous rival. Annabelle Forthington-Smythe, with her cruel and snide comments, seems designed to fulfil this role in the initial chapters so it’s slightly disappointing that we lose this as Poppy, Ingrid and Kip focus on solving the mystery. As J K Rowling clearly demonstrated when she introduced Draco Malfoy to readers, these characters can add depth to a story and help identify and build sympathy with a book’s main character.
But, perhaps, we don’t need this. As a reader we warm to Poppy from the very first page. In one of the most original opening scenes, we meet Poppy hanging upside down forty-feet in the air and trying not to cry as she argues against being sent away to school.
It was also refreshing to meet Poppy’s circus family. Many authors are searching for an original take on the traditional nuclear family and it’s difficult to beat Poppy’s extended family on this score – from Lion Tamer Luigi (aka Little Lord Lucas, the fourteenth Earl of Burnshire), to Sharp-Eye Shelia, and The Magnificent Magician Marvin. This also provides great scope for humour and I very much enjoyed reading the transcripts of the telephone conversations between Poppy and her family (even if the landlady of ‘The Flying Ferret’ did manage to steal each of these scenes).
Author Laura Wood certainly has a knack for the unusual. The Headteacher, Ms Baxter, for example, defies the usual conventions being a genuine and approachable character with very few of the traditional traits associated with the stereotypical Headteacher. (In many respects Ms Baxter reminded me of Miss Fotheringay in Esme Kerr’s school mystery The Glass Bird Girl).
In terms of plot, we know we are supposed to suspect science teacher, Miss Susan, so we inevitably look elsewhere. I correctly identified the real culprit relatively early on but that’s probably more of a reflection of the number of books I’ve studied in this genre than a weakness in the story structure. I suspect that the mystery and revelation will work for the target audience – the younger end of middle grade.
The writing is tight with good pace. There are a few too many similes for my personal taste but, again, I’m not the target audience and children may well love these.
Overall this is an unusual take on a traditional school story that will appeal to children aged up to about 11.
If you enjoined this school mystery, you may also enjoy The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr or The Mystery of Wickworth Manor by Elen Caldecott.
Publication Date: September 2015
Author’s Website: Laura Wood
Review first published on The Bookbag