On the way back from Cape Girardeau, where my mother and I followed a carefully-designed program for “riotous living” that included shoe-shopping and the consumption of lobster tails, I read Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones. I took it along because, especially in the wake of making my list of books for middle-schoolers, I knew I wanted to read more by DWJ, and as it’s DWJ March, this is the time.
Archer’s Goon struck me as more of a children’s book than some of her others, which is not a criticism from someone who has as many shelves full of children’s books as we do. It does create a different sort of expectation, though, and that expectation was fulfilled by the events of the plot. A town is run by seven wizards. The seemingly innocent children you meet in the beginning turn out to be more resourceful than even they knew they could be. The “goon” of the title turns out to be more than you expected. It’s all good fun, and there are some nice surprises; I am especially fond of the way the character of Hathaway is revealed, and I love a letter he sends, complete with the old-fashioned long s (the one that looks like an f).
Along the way there are some delightful things. One of my favorite parts is the protagonist’s family dynamics—when his father asks his little sister to make him a cup of tea, the father has to specify: “with boiling water and two tea bags and only milk in the cup. Curry, mustard, pepper and vinegar are strictly forbidden.” This reminds me of the rules we made when we shared a townhouse in Maryland with our friend Miriam, like “no fires except in the fireplace” and “sharp knives in the back” (of the dishwasher).
From the first moment the protagonist, who likes to design space ships, sees his first real space ship, I knew the secret of his identity, which made me feel smart. This is another way in which this is a good children’s book; it does things like that just for fun.
In the end, some of the secrets depend on family dynamics, like how an older sibling always acts to his next-youngest siblings. Even if you don’t come from a big family, as I certainly don’t, it’s nice to imagine yourself in one of those places. And it’s one of the many ways this author makes you feel included, as if the book itself is a kind of family, and you’re invited to see into some of its secrets. It’s an absolutely delightful children’s book that I wish I’d read earlier, but better now than never.