Monday, March 11, 2013

MMGM: The Ogre Downstairs, by Diana Wynne Jones

Kristen over at We Be Reading is hosting DWJ March, in honour of Diana Wynne Jones, a year after her death. I'm doing a guest post for Kristen tomorrow, but I thought I'd get into the spirit of things myself, especially after reading this book.

I keep finding Diana Wynne Jones books I haven't read, which is wonderful: like finding a $20 bill in the pocket of the coat you haven't worn for a while. I found this one in the library while researching for my guest blog. The Ogre Downstairs was in the middle-grade section beside the Chrestomanci books and Archer's Goon.

It started a little slowly for me. The adventures of a step-family with a magical chemistry set at first seemed a little too episodic and predictable--similar in concept to Half Magic, by Edgar Eager (which I love, btw): kids mess around with magic and something different goes wrong every time. The two sets of kids (Caspar, Johnny and Gwinny from the mom, Malcolm and Douglas from the dad) are obnoxious to each other and their parents, and the omniscient narration skips around a bit, so at first I didn't have any character I was sympathizing with.

But in typical Diana Wynne Jones fashion, the complications multiply exponentially, the characters develop in realistic but quirky ways, and this book is really, really funny. For example, it's not just that the toffee bars come to life; it's that they keep escaping and they love to congregate on the radiators.
"Bring some biscuits when you get the box," said Caspar. "The toffee bars may be hungry too." [hilarious line all by itself]
So Johnny rammed the lid back on and went down to the kitchen, while Caspar collected all the toffee wrappers he could find and made a careful count. It came to nineteen. The thought of catching nineteen nimble toffee bars was a little daunting. [Another sentence that makes me grin every time: the alliteration, the understatement, the juxtaposition of nimble and toffee.] He had only succeeded in catching one by the time Johnny came back with a large cardboard box and a packet of Small Rich Tea Biscuits, and the only reason he caught that one was that Johnny had bitten a piece off it the evening before. It was much slower than the others in consequence, and went with a sort of limp. [This is the kind of thing DWJ is brilliant at: the extra little realistic detail that makes her magic completely believable. And so funny!] 
"Oh, the poor thing!" Johnny said, when Caspar showed him. "I'll never eat another toffee bar again!" He put it tenderly in the cardboard box and made it comfortable with some comics and a small Rich Tea biscuit. [Comics!  For a toffee bar!] It did not want to stay. Crippled as it was, it kept trying to get out, until Caspar thought of putting the box against the radiator. The lame bar seemed to like that. It curled up peacefully and began to look a little sticky.
And that's just the potion that brings things to life. There's also the flying one, the switching places one, the one that turns you different colours, the invisibility one. . . The two halves of the family at first compete to see what they can do with the chemicals, but as they get into deeper and deeper messes they have to help each other out. In the meantime the Ogre (the dad) is getting more and more frustrated with these kids who make so much noise and cause so much trouble. And the consequences end up being very real.

Diana Wynne Jones is brilliant at understanding how children think and behave and how family dynamics work. All her children can be perfectly beastly: they whine, they get jealous, they are cowardly and malicious and selfish. But they are also creative and empathetic and flexible and kind. Siblings both hate and love each other. Parents don't understand kids. Kids make dreadful mistakes. But if there's love in the mix it all comes out okay somehow. The resolution of the complicated mess at the end of The Ogre Downstairs is funny and sweet and quite satisfying.

The Ogre Downstairs is a trip to one of those great candy stores that has crazy candy from everywhere and you can't even decide what you want to spend your allowance on.

For more Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday choices, go to Shannon Messenger's marvelous blog.


  1. I love your description of this book. It sounds so unique and quirky. How fun! Thanks for sharing. Glad to learn about this author. :)

  2. You have a great way with words. I love your review. I will check this book out.

  3. Oh, I've made two more Diana Wynne Jones converts! (Of course you'll be converted as soon as you read her books.) Mission accomplished!

  4. Ooo, I haven't read this one! I love her Tale of Time City, so I know what you mean about the quirkiness and about her command of her characters and how brilliantly she develops them. She was such a talented author.

  5. mmm I love what you said about discovering new-to-you books by a favorite author (and the analogy to finding money). SO true! I've only read Howl's Moving Castle and I'm happy to know I have a large supply of DWJ books to choose from. I hadn't even heard of this book before. Nicely reviewed :)

  6. I've been meaning to get to this one, and all that about escaping toffee bars just convinced me to move this to the top of my Diana Wynne Jones TBR books... :)