Bad education

In a simpler world, bad teachers would be called out for what they are and punished. It’s a compelling idea and one that is at the centre of Payal Kapadia’s Horrid High, for readers aged 10 and above.

Ferg Gottin, Phil Fingersmith, Fermina Filch, Mesmer Martin and Immy Tate are students at the Horrid High school for orphaned and unwanted children. The pre-teens have a crisis on their hands when their school principal decides to organize a party for horrid educators. The five put together their heads to resolve it—for example, Fingersmith opens several locked doors and Mesmer hypnotizes the terrible school cook Chef Gretta Gross to stop the bad teachers from being “perfectly horrid".

Kapadia explores the very real problem of bad teachers and grown-ups who have little time and patience for children without getting preachy or sounding sullen. She does this partly by giving everyone a backstory that’s every bit as engaging as the central plot: the teachers’ reasons for being horrid range from having grown up with a terribly pushy parent and an obsessive compulsive disorder to simply being a sourpuss. A particularly funny personal history is that of the gatekeeper Faughty Winks, who landed the job at Horrid High after being fired as a bullfighter because he couldn’t stay awake in the arena.

The writing is by turns direct and evocative. The names literally indicate the most significant quality of their bearer (Ferg Gottin is easily forgotten and Gross serves up dishes like Maggotty Pizza for lunch). This is a continuing thread from her first children’s book Wisha Wozzariter about 10-year-old Wisha who wants to be a writer—it won the 2013 Crossword Book Award for Children’s Writing. Seen from the children’s point of view, the badness of educators like Master Mynus, Coach Kallus and Principal Perverse is deliciously evoked (often in exaggerated terms). The first time Ferg meets Principal Perverse, for example, he is afforded a ghastly look up the principal’s nostrils: “They flared, and the little hairs inside them trembled. So did Ferg".

While bad teachers and irresponsible parenting are condemned in no uncertain terms, ideas like ecological concerns, introduction to global cultures, and the stupidity of harbouring superstitious beliefs are woven more subtly into the plot. Kapadia walks a tightrope when introducing questions around whether learning should be dull or fun and whether the job of the teacher is to encourage or squash children’s imagination. Such themes have been flogged before, and can quickly fall down the pedantic cliff. Horrid High is saved on the first count by Principal Perverse’s hilarious “FUN is for FOOLS" speech. On the question of children’s imagination, Kapadia finds a way out in the form of Ferg’s friend Ace, who wears an orange “thinking cap", writes the most fanciful stories and hatches the most ingenious rescues.

While the writing is visual and paints the decrepitude of the school building and the rottenness of its teachers, the illustrations by Roger Dahl (who also collaborated with Kapadia on Wisha Wozzariter) add to the dimness of the scene. A map at the beginning helpfully marks important landmarks like Dead End Station and Get Lost Forever Woods. If the illustrations fall short somewhere, it’s in picturing Principal Percival Perverse, whose flared nostrils don’t inspire as much fear in the drawings as they do in the descriptions of them.

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