Damian Callinan (text) and Adele K. Thomas (illustrator), Weird School, Penguin Random House Australia, August 2021, 256 pp., RRP $14.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760893446
As the title suggests, Weird School fits firmly into the genre of comedy stories about strange school experiences. It’s actually a collection of short stories, each with its own cast of characters and arc of events, but the stories fit together with some through lines to create a picture of Wally Park Primary, officially classified as a Class A Weird School because so many strange things happen there. To set the scene the book begins with an introduction about Australia’s weirdest schools, with their particular quirks such as buildings that get sunburned. This non-fiction style beginning sets the tone for the whole book, which has shades of Monty Python, Matilda and Welcome to Nightvale, but pitched at primary school aged readers.
The stories are surreal, absurd and a little bit dark, but always with a boldly comic edge. Crazy characters populate the school, including the much hated, narcissistic principal Mr Drummond (middle name Buttley), a teacher who is an Olympic competitor, a crossing guard with a strange link to a second world, and a range of students that include a shapeshifter, a camouflage world champion, and an alien. These students navigate their way through bizarre and dangerous events with matter-of-fact attitudes, skill, and panache. Although Wally Park seems like a very dangerous school to attend, it encourages resourcefulness in its students, and the school days are certainly eventful.
Each chapter/story focuses on a school event that will be very familiar to anyone who has attended primary school, but each has its own extreme Wally Park twist. There is the class that bands together to thwart the principal and to enable their teacher, Mrs Luu, to train for the Olympics, by building a second Mrs Luu on the school’s 3D printer. Unfortunately, the second Mrs Luu has a marked tendency to act like a pirate. The school walk-a-thon is filled with many potentially fatal challenges, while the out-of-bounds area has a mind of its own. The stories are tied together with recurring characters, links to previous events and the through line of the terrible principal who is eventually removed from the school, with the students taking over.
Weird School has an excellent gender balance, and all the students are active protagonists without gender stereotypes in terms of roles or personalities. The racial diversity is less apparent, although it emerges more in the second half of the book. Making the most of the hilarious illustrations by Adele Thomas, the book is ‘interactive’: the chapters are separated by data files on various students, copies of school documents (such as the newsletter), and a camp risk assessment sheet that recommends students bring a bullet-proof vest. Overall, the stories are imaginative, and full of energy, action, and danger, and are perfectly complemented by the vivid pictures of the students and crazy occurrences.
Reviewed by Rachel Le Rossignol