I am a big fan of Andy Mulligan’s Trash, published last year in the United States to very positive reviews. (It also made it through two rounds in last year’s SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books; those elegantly penned decisions are here and here.) And now, having just read them, I’m here to report that Mulligan’s other two books, Ribblestrop and Return to Ribblestrop, are just as good (although as of this writing, they have not been published in the US and I don’t know of any plans to do so). While I had the books on hand for a while it was the latter’s winning the Guardian children’s book prize that spurred me on to read it and then to go on to read the first one. Completely out of order and not recommended as such, but I admit that I quite enjoyed going backwards in learning about the characters and their circumstances.
The two books are part of a projected trilogy set in a most unconventional school, Ribblestrop. And so, yes, this is absolutely a school story and moreso a boarding school story. There is a school song, uniforms, and so on. But it is, in every way, a completely unconventional school and school story — there are lovely adults around who care about the students and do help in the end, but are also occasionally cluess. There are also hideous adults around who are out for absolutely no good as far as the children go. These are serious badies, villains, meanies with no complicating factors to gain sympathy — they are completely and utterly bad, terrifyingly so at points. More importantly, there are the students who can be considered in two parts. First of all there is a motley group that includes Millie, a very angry thirteen-year-old and the only girl at the school; Sanchez, the son of a Columbian mobster; Sam, a sweet and vulnerable new boy; Ruskin (and, in the second book, his brother Olie) with his poor vision and smarts; and a few more. The second cohort are the orphans, a group from India, street children it seems (and somewhat related for me to the boys of Trash) who all seem to be incredibly capable at all sorts of things, not a weak one in the bunch. Mulligan, a veteran international school teacher, on his website, writes of the orphans:
They are from India, with bits of Nepal thrown in. Like Millie, they are fusions of the various children I have met – especially the children I taught in northern India, with a work ethic so intense it was scary. And manners that used to shame my own.
Both books have intense plots; in both the children are put in tremendous peril. There are violent moments, very violent ones where children get seriously hurt. While the good adults around them (the headmaster and a couple of their teachers) help, it is always the children in the end who save each other, working as a team to do so. I’m not great at doing plot summaries by and large and with these two books the plots are complex and so I recommend going elsewhere for more specifics (and here to read an excerpt from the second book).
The books also have moments of absolute wonder and delight. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are some wonderous places around and under the Ribblestrop estate, there is a ghost, there are glorious learning experiences, dramatic football games, remarkable acts of building and creation, wild animals, and delightful meals. Not to mention that they are funny in the best understated sort of way.
The first thing Sam noticed as he pushed open the laboratory door was a large pair of hairy knees sticking out from under a bench. He noticed them because in his exhausted state he tripped over them and, as he was carrying a box full of test tubes, the result was noisy. (pg 117, Ribblestrop)
To my mind, the best description of the books is this one from Mulligan when accepting the Guardian prize:
“I never expected the Guardian to award such a stonker of a prize to a book that is dangerous, violent, irreverent, politically incorrect, joyously sentimental, anti-adult, pro-child and sometimes bizarre – but I’m very glad they have.