Thursday, April 07, 2005
On the surface, the opening page of THE DEMON HEADMASTER contains a depiction of an argument between two boys. But what the reader actually gets is much more than this. For one thing, you get as much back-story as is required to set the scene and whet the appetite and pique the curiosity of the reader so they’re keen to read on. You also get essential information on the relationship between the two boys, and an introduction of sorts to a third character, Dinah, who they’re discussing. By the time you turn the first page you’re ready to plunge into the rest of the book, armed with all you need to know about the extraordinary circumstances that already exist at the school when the story begins. This is a master class in how to set up a plot with such subtlety and economy of means that the reader is never consciously aware of it; we’re too busy being entertained.
The origins of THE DEMON HEADMASTER are curious. Gillian Cross wrote a book called SAVE OUR SCHOOL in which there’s a mention of a story about a wicked headmaster written by one of the characters, a boy named Clipper. On reading this, Gillian Cross’ daughter, then aged 8, suggested that her mother try writing such a story herself, which she thought sounded better than all the books she’d written up to that point. The author took this advice on board and eventually the first in a highly successful series was born. But the idea itself was originally the creation of a character invented by Gillian Cross, and she is apparently still not sure if Clipper wouldn’t have made a better job of things if he’d written the whole book himself.
The Puffin Modern Classics edition of the book is worth getting hold of, because it also contains a thought-provoking afterword by Chris Powling (which is where I read about the origins of the story mentioned above).
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