How To Write Like Paul Jennings

Paul Jennings books

Paul Jennings has been an influential children’s author in Australia and New Zealand since the 1980s.


The Un-series took off internationally, became a TV series, the rest is history. Many people my age grew up with Paul Jennings. Schools across Australia and New Zealand all have (or had) multiple copies, sometimes class sets for study in class. I have taught Paul Jennings stories myself. These are considered texts to draw the reluctant reader in.

After revisiting the tales this year, I realised something else. Jennings’ stories serve to uphold a system of misogyny and sexism typical of the 1980s. Paul Jennings stories served a specific purpose in a specific era, but it’s now time to retire these books from the classroom. Childhood is very short, in comparison to the sheer volume of reading material available. We desperately need contemporary, woke, diverse, feminist hi-lo readers with fun, twisty endings to fill the Paul Jennings space.

That said, Paul Jennings is a master storyteller who cracked the difficult knack of genuinely writing for children, not for a dual audience, nor for advanced middle grade readers only. There’s a lot to learn from Paul Jennings in that regard.



  • Titles often have a pun element, not obvious until after the twist.
  • Opening sentences often introduce intriguing high concepts.
  • Or, the story will open with a character in a scary/impossible situation e.g. perched high on a ladder (“Eyes Knows”). In other words, Jennings is making use of ‘in medias res’. We continue reading to find out how they got there.
  • Or, there will be a weird scenario (a character has a huge nose) and the backstory that follows will explain how this happened.
  • Or, the story will begin with a boy having just got himself into trouble with an authority figure (“UFD”).
  • Many of these stories are tall tales, and use the techniques of that genre.
  • Some are retellings of classic stories or a new spin on an old yarn. “Ice Maiden” = the Greek myth of Pygmalion. “Greensleeves” is a spin on “Jonah and the Whale”. “Know All” is a new spin on Pandora’s Box.
  • A lot of Jennings’ stories are bookended. He loves the story-within-a-story structure. To use the terms of narratology, Jennings makes use of two diegetic levels diegetic and metadiegetic. This conjures the ambience of a ‘storyteller around a campfire‘. Either an interesting adult tells a tall story to a child viewpoint character, or the child viewpoint character themselves launches into some wild backstory to explain the situation at hand. The stand-out example is the standalone story illustrated by Terry Denton, called Sucked In. The story’s title comes from the fact that a group of kids have been taken in by a tall tale… or have they?
  • The bookend story has a story structure all of its own. (Its own opponent, plan, big struggle etc.) Because we have two of everything, this packs a lot into a short story and creates a fast-paced reading experience.
  • The Battle sequences are especially fun for the audience of these stories, with massive high-octane, ridiculous hilarity and plenty of revenge against authority and outright villainy.
  • Stories are written in first person, unless there’s some reason to write in third. For instance, the story will be written in third person if the first person viewpoint character isn’t going to be sticking around for the entire story. (“One-shot Toothpaste”) Stories are also written in third person if there are two main characters instead of one (e.g. “Birdscrap”), or perhaps if the story is about an adult rather than a child (“The Velvet Throne”).
  • Jennings doesn’t care that his Chekhov’s Guns are wholly unsubtle. If a character mentions a valuable painting, you can be sure that valuable painting will be found at the end of the story (“Skeleton On The Dunny”). A young reader is in the moment. Unlike a more sophisticated audience, they are not picking up the Chekhov’s Guns and making predictions.
  • It’s interesting to see which dots are joined for the young reader. Paul Jennings likes the reader to piece together their own endings. But everything else is handed to them on a plate. For instance, if there is a ghost, the reader is told there is a ghost. There’s no doubt about it (to my mind) because Jennings is using all the ghost tropes. But Jennings never forgets: He’s writing for eight year olds. Eight year olds haven’t got a long history of hearing ghost stories. Eight year olds don’t have a long history of anything. They’re eight. This is why, in a story like “Lighthouse Blues” we have sentences like ‘It had to be ghosts. The ghosts of Captain Rickard and Alan Rickard’. Any adult reader has already worked this out by section five. And so have the young readers, probably. But young readers like this confirmed. They were right! They feel smart. In a story for older readers, this sort of explanation might be considered ‘overexplanation’, and edited out.

Don’t play it too cool. Don’t trust us to figure it out if you can’t trust us to figure it out. Always try to think of any other interpretation that your reader may have. When in doubt, spell it out.

Matt Bird
  • Paul Jennings doesn’t lampshade coincidence. He makes the most of it. That is a feature of the tall tale. Almost all of his stories contain an element of unbelievable coincidence. Or, to be kind, we could call it ‘non-mimetic’ coincidence. (Events in a story don’t even try to emulate how the real world works.) The events of “Greensleeves” rely heavily on comical levels of coincidence, reminiscent of a fairytale.
  • Jennings is using “fairytale logic” and also fairytale archetypes. Mothers are often dead. The boy main character is most often reminiscent of the underdog third son. Virtue is richly rewarded by some unseen force.
  • Oftentimes the Battle sequence is a prearranged competition (“Birdman”, “Wunderpants”, “Little Squirt”) in which boys big struggle for prestige and dominance. The underdog will win after previously stumbling upon some magic. It might be a speech in front of the class rather than a competition (“Without A Shirt”), but the story structure is the same.
  • Ticking clocks come in various forms, but Jennings likes to make use of a magical piece of equipment which only lasts for a certain number of times or a certain length of time. (Super glue which only sticks for two hours; a lie detector that only works seven times.) This, too, is from fairytales. A genie grants three wishes, etc.
  • If a ghost is going to appear, often there’s a character who appears first to explain the backstory of the ghost. (The police officer in “A Good Tip For Ghosts”, the annoying girl classmate in “Cracking Up”.) This utilises the trick of having characters talk about an intriguing character before that character appears on the scene.
  • In a Paul Jennings story the planning step isn’t necessarily an obvious step in the direction of fulfilling the main character’s desire. For instance, a boy wants to prove a flying dog exists. Instead of making a plan to that effect, he goes along with his father to buy ice-cream. A boy wants to get out of trouble for ruining his mother’s precious notebook. The grandfather just happens to turn up so he goes along on a frog-finding mission with him. This goes against how most writers cover the plan phase of a story. But in a way, it’s more mimetic for a child audience. A low mimetic child hero doesn’t have great executive functioning, and neither does the typical reader. Kids like this aren’t up to making plans. Instead, everything fits together as if by fate. The boys in these stories fulfil their desires, but often it’s through no good planning of their own. These white boys get what they want through sheer ‘dumb luck’, as Professor McGonnagal might say. (And I do say ‘white boy’ for a reason. We accept that kind of privilege in white boy characters.)
sheer dumb luck


  • Magical items appear without explanation. Magic simply is. In common with fairytales, we are given the very basics, then left to imagine the rest. In “Birdscrap”, Jennings doesn’t bother going into backstory of why a pair of rubies are significant. They just are. We know they are special precisely because the main characters are looking for them. The item with magic attached is common in fairytale and children’s stories but we sometimes see it in stories for adults, such as Annie Proux’s “A Pair of Spurs”.
  • A magical item will help the main character achieve their goal, but first they need to learn how to use it. The magical item will lead them through a series (probably two) humiliating gag scenes before helping with the goal. (“Birdman”, “The Mouth Organ”, “Spaghetti Pig-out”). This avoids the trap of magical items all writers need to skirt around the character needs to save the day, not the magic. This magical item might be a machine typical of 1980s technology, like the VCR of “Spaghetti Pig-out”. A modern audience may not have seen the rewind function in action. More to the point, many modern remote controls (e.g. PS4) don’t need to be pointed directly at the machine.
  • Fantasy creatures appear, special rubies exist, and mundane objects have a fantastical backstory. In this respect, Paul Jennings is the kiddie equivalent of Stephen King. For instance, both Jennings and King made use of a monster inside a drain, around the same time. The everyday world is simply a veneer masking terror below. They both make use of the snail under the leaf setting.
  • Jennings tends to give a ‘standout detail’ rather than creating a rounded picture. One of the more lengthy examples is the description of the annoying little helper called Snookle, who turns up inside a milk bottle. ‘All I could see was a large pair of gloomy eyes. He must have had a body but it was nowhere to be seen. The eyes simply floated in the air about fifteen centimetres above the bottom of the bottle.’
  • Overall, there’s a distinctly Australian feel to the settings (of course). This mapped equally well onto my New Zealand childhood, with its strong beach culture and houses which tend to be near the sea. Beaches hide buried treasure. Where the land meets the sea is often used in stories to evoke that liminal sense of where fantasy meets reality.
  • A form of magic beloved of Paul Jennings is the magic which takes over control of a boy’s body. (“Without A Shirt”, “Birdman”)
  • A similar form of magic is when a boy feels compelled to do as a magic item tells him. (“On The Bottom”, “Eyes Knows”)


  • The typical reader is an 8-10 year old, and the typical age of a main character is 14-16. This affords the characters more freedom. Some characters are younger than that. It seems to depend on whether there’s a romantic element. If Jennings needs a romance plot, he’ll age the main character up.
  • Wish fulfilment in Paul Jennings stories cover a large repeating territory: the wish to be respected (especially by girls), the wish to have money or treasure, to fly, to solve a mystery by your very own detective work, to have super powers, to find a magic item which solves a large problem.
  • Main characters are overwhelmingly boys. These boys are low-mimetic heroes according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. These boys are slightly more hapless, stupid, unobservant than the reader. This creates empathy, and we also laugh at them. We feel smarter than they are for working things out before they do.
  • Paul Jennings gets the parents out of the way and he doesn’t care how he does it. (The parents in Come Back Gizmo have gone out and haven’t even told their son where they’ve gone.) Jennings can get rid of adults suddenly with a one-sentence explanation. Or, we simply accept that parents aren’t there. In fairytale tradition, parents might have died in a car crash.
  • Adult opponents are often authority figures (principals, teachers, mean nurses, cranky neighbours). The meanest will receive punishment at the end, with vengeful plot ‘twists’.
  • Nasty opponents are both nasty and illogical. For instance, a nasty teacher has a precious plant, yet entrusts the care of it to his students each night so it doesn’t get covered in dust while the cleaners are doing their jobs (“Cracking Up”).
  • Jennings likes the archetype of the “little man” (described thus) who appears out of nowhere to serve whatever purpose Jennings sees fit. The “little man” in Come Back Gizmo appears to say the main character’s dog has been found. The “little man” in “Box Strap Flyer” appears as a trickster to outwit another trickster. Why does Jennings describe these men as “little”? Because they are meant to work mostly invisibly, behind the scenes, popping in occasionally to interfere with the machinations of a mystery.
  • When girls appear, they are most often girl archetypes (beautiful bitches, blonde sexual objects, wimpy, annoying sisters). They are therefore most often an opponent, romantic or potentially romantic, despite lack of interest on their part. When there are no girls at all in the story (“The Paw Thing”) Jennings doesn’t have the opportunity to muck it up.
  • Even adult women are a continuation of the female maturity principle, in which men and boys embark on these wacky, dangerous plans while the women tut-tut, oblivious to the fantasy world around them. In “Birdman” the mother is in a strop with the father because she thinks the flying competition is too dangerous. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” the mother gets into a strop because the father has bought a dodgy video down at the pub, but the father is always vindicated, because these machines and tricks always turn out to fix a big problem. Crazy dads are rewarded. Sensible mums are proven wrong to be sensible, every time.
  • Because this is the 1980s, the mothers are the ones calling their kids in for tea. The dads are the ones going out to work. This is believable for the 1980s, but my own mother went out to work in the 1980s, and so did the mothers of most of my friends. So Jennings was still behind in his parental gender roles.
  • Characters are often symbolically named e.g. a dog called Ripper who rips holes in your pants, or Chomper, a ghost who (it is revealed) searches the tip each night in search of his false teeth. The big, bad opponent in a story is most likely to be symbolically named in this way. The Every Boy gets more of a classic white boy name.
  • The son or daughter of the mayor is likely to be corrupt.


  • Inversions are utilised as gags. For instance, a boy and dog switch bodies (Gizmo Come Back) or a father and dog switch bodies (“Birdman”). (See also: Inversion does not equal subversion.)
  • Typical of men of his era, Jennings fails to subvert some troubling, misogynistic tropes. Instead, his stories serve to keep girl characters subdued and under control. Yet he is able to subvert other kinds of authority by making the most of the carnivalesque. (“Lucky Lips” is perhaps the worst of the lot, with a carnivalesque, gross-out and also rapey set of scenarios leading to a disturbing climax, not dissimilar to the controversial pilot episode of Black Mirror.)
  • Paul Jennings uses fat kids as the bully character. This was very common in the 1980s. Fat boys were either enemies or pathetic. In modern stories, the fat boy is still sidekick to the main character Every Boy, though he’s often a nicer person than everyone else. This isn’t really an inversion until fat boys get to be the stars of their own stories, which aren’t about the experience of being fat. In The Cabbage Patch Wars, two dads with beer bellies engage in a weight loss competition, in an era before Biggest Loser was a thing.
  • There’s a disproportionate number of redheaded kids in Paul Jennings stories. Like most children’s writers, he tends to use red hair as a ‘stand out’ attribute by giving a kid red hair he is saying ‘keep an eye on this character’. Jennings uses a red headed kid for the bully in “A Good Tip For Ghosts” but the red headed kid is a main character in “Ice Maiden”, and despite hating red hair himself, he ends up falling in love with a red headed girl. Also, his red hair saves his life. So Jennings is trying to tell us that red hair isn’t so bad in one story, yet uses red hair however he sees fit in other stories.
  • If an evil person is introduced, and that evil person is mistreating others you can bet Paul Jennings will exact punishment on that character, even if it requires a final section of the story to do just that. In other words, he ties off every other strand in the story, and it might end there, but then he goes back in for the punishment. These stories are famous for being about anarchy and fun, but they are conservative in their values.
  • Look closely at these stories and you’ll find they are basically very conservative, and sometimes clearly didactic. “The Busker” is about how you can’t buy friendship. Yet in “Spaghetti Pig-out”, the main character buys friends with a magical device. So stories contradict each other in their moralism.
  • The idea that bad people do bad things and also get away with it is not part of the Paul Jennings setting, although it is part of real life.
  • Stories which revolve around a reordering of hierarchy are so common, not just in the Paul Jennings oeuvre, that we rarely stop to think about how to completely subvert the hierarchy itself. As Matt Bird says about Battle sequences in general, at first the main character is socially challenged (usually via humiliation). This is absolutely true of Paul Jennings stories. We are lately starting to see a pushback on this fundamental idea. Australian feminist philosopher Kate Manne says it best in her critique of Jordan Peterson’s viral “12 Rules For Life”:

Critiquing these hierarchical structures and finding, when possible, a way to live outside of them in more co-operative ways are obvious alternatives for human beings about which Peterson says little.

  • I have exactly the same thing to say about Paul Jennings, who has nothing to say about how to live outside hierarchies, or about dismantling the hierarchies altogether. Instead, story after story fulfils the wish to move from underdog to king pin, often by dumb luck and with magical help rather than by achieving any special insight.


  • The writing style is conversational rather than literary.
  • A strong 1980s, 1990s Australian voice comes through, in emulation of the ‘True, blue Aussie’ which certain politicians like to emulate, even today. This voice is in itself a kind of fictional caricature, which isn’t to say that certain people don’t make full use of it as a character gag. Mick Gould who stars in Australia’s 2019 Married At First Sight also uses this distinctly Australian larrikin persona for enduring comic value and audience empathy, so it hasn’t gone away. This voice is full of idiomatic expressions, mixed metaphors for comic effect, telling it like it is, positioning oneself as hapless and unpretentious, and making use of borderline inappropriate language (insofar as a children’s book will allow, hence “Birdscrap”, which can be explained away as “Bird Scrap” rather than its real meaning of “Birds’ Crap”).
  • Emotions are described matter-of-factly in a single sentence e.g. ‘I felt embarrassed,’ ‘I felt silly‘.


  • A useful taxonomy of humour in children’s stories. Paul Jennings makes heavy use of slapstick.
  • Physiological reactions are comical they could easily happen in a Cartoon Network show. Knees knocking, obvious blushing, teeth chattering.
  • Titles such as “Birdscrap” are word play and also taboo.
  • Readers take delight in upending authority. This kind of carnivalesque humour is utilised across many picture books, which makes these hi-lo readers a natural progression for young readers. This type of humour is still very popular here in Australian children’s publishing, with the Treehouse creators saying that children crave ‘irreverent’ humour. Irreverent is another way of saying the same thing. Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths also talk about the importance of ‘anarchy‘, and this applies equally to Paul Jennings, who has surely been influential on their work.
  • Humour has been classified into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. Men and boys are more likely to use ‘negative’ humour to belittle, to humiliate etc. Paul Jennings stories are far more likely to belittle and humiliate, with a few exceptions e.g. “The Mouth Organ” (in which, no coincidence, he chooses a girl for his narrator).
  • Jennings makes use of gross-out elements. (A sea of bird poo, a creature picking a boy’s nose for him, being stuck in a skip full of rubbish, a dug up skeleton etc.)
  • In tall story tradition Jennings plays around with scale and size. (This is also a feature of myths e.g. Greek myth.) For example, a shack is surrounded by a sea of seagull poo, a tooth grows bigger than the man to whom it belongs. Jennings understands that by playing around with scale, he creates resonant imagery for the reader. Other examples: ‘A pumpkin so big it took four men to lift it’, ‘peas as big as golf balls’, ‘beans were as long as your arm’, so many flies they black out the sun. Extreme stench is utilised in several different stories. In the humour taxonomy, this is gross-out overlaid with hyperbole.
  • Related to big things as small, small things as big, creatures and things operate in the way we don’t expect. Oftentimes, it’s a simple inversion. For instance, in Sucked In, we are led to expect that a cat is about to eat the escaped appendix. The illustration shows a massive cat (so massive the cat is partly off the page) with the much smaller appendix in a vulnerable position beneath the cat. But turn the page and the appendix eats the cat. This is man bites dog’ humour, funny because it subverts expectations.
  • Bad smells are a common feature of Paul Jennings stories, especially if they overwhelm an entire town. (“Greensleeves” is one example)
  • Humiliation of the main character is often a large component of the humour. We empathise with the main character because he is in an underdog embarrassing situation. He comes up trumps at the end, not because of his own superpowers coming to the fore, but because the gods are smiling upon him. He remains a low-mimetic hero (Northrop Frye’s classification).
  • Disembodied body parts are commonly utilised throughout Paul Jennings stories. False teeth are the star of several different narratives (“A Good Tip For Ghosts, The Cabbage Patch War). In Sucked In, an appendix in a jar is the star. We have a dismembered finger in “On The Bottom”.
  • Nudity is both funny and humiliating (cringe humour). Bums especially so (“On The Bottom”). Mention of exposed genitalia would be considered inappropriate for this age group, but we do have an entire story about a pissing contest.


The big selling point of a Paul Jennings collection is the twist-in-the-tale. You’ll find this promise on the advertising copy. This seems to be what impresses readers the most.

Some of the stories contain two twists: One in the Level 0 story, another in the Level 1, meta story.

Some of the ‘twists’ only work on a child audience. The sophisticated adult reader sees them a mile out. Paul Jennings does not attempt a dual audience, and that largely explains his success: His stories for kids are really for kids. On the other hand, sometimes the reward is in knowing exactly what’s coming. There’s a visceral delight in that.

Christopher Vogler has pointed out that ‘twist endings’ are most often sardonic, bitter, wry and I would add ‘vengeful’. It is much more difficult to write a twist ending that does not invoke these negative (but satisfying) emotions in us. A rare exception is the famous short story by O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi”. Paul Jennings doesn’t do ‘kind’ twist endings. (Twist endings which say something lovely about humankind are very hard to pull off.)

Another twist Paul Jennings does NOT do: The scary supernatural creature turns out to be no such thing. Once Jennings creates his scary opposition, that opposition is real within the setting. The ‘and it wasn’t really real’ twist is not satisfying. It’s a close cousin of ‘And then I woke up and it was all a dream‘.

  • Jennings reveals that an authority figure has the same desires as the kids, proving himself not so high and mighty after all. (“Pink Bow Tie”). This is a carnivalesque trick because it upends the adult-child hierarchy.
  • A storyteller spins a yarn which the young viewpoint character fully believes. The twist is that the storyteller is full of yarns, and the existence of the second yarn disproves the veracity of the main yarn. (“One Shot Toothpaste”.) This is a tall tale trick.
  • A character with a certain strong character trait (e.g. fearlessness) goes through an experience which serves to invert that trait (e.g. he is now scared of not scary things) (“Inside Out”). This draws on the mechanism of irony. The reader expects a character arc to be: Child learns to conquer his fears.
  • A mysterious storyteller who tells his tale in third person is revealed to have been telling the story about himself all along. (“The Busker”)
  • A fantastic tale is not fantasy at all, then leaves off with a detail or explanation that suggests the fantastic tale might be fantastic, or it might not. (“Souperman”)
  • A situation is resolved, seemingly forever, but then it is revealed in the final paragraph that this is a repeating story and is likely to happen again. Paul Jennings gets a lot of mileage out of this one. (“One Shot Toothpaste”, “The Gum Leaf War”, “Come Back Gizmo”, Sucked In) Often, the first and main story happens to a boy, then the next (untold) story is about to happen to a girl. DreamWorks did the same in its movie adaptation of Boss Baby. (They probably think this counts as gender diversity.)
  • A Holy Grail object of desire is revealed to have been right there, staring them in the face all along. (“Birdscrap”)
  • A villain opponent is revealed to be more of an ally, and ends up helping the young character get with they want. Sometimes this is a ghost, who seems scary at first but is revealed to be kind. (“Birdscrap”, “Skeleton On The Dunny”)
  • An opponent with a formidable reputation turns out to be much less scary once met face to face (“A Good Tip For Ghosts”).
  • An opponent for the child viewpoint character turns out to be an ally for another character, because everyone’s needs are different. (“Snookle”)
  • A weird situation is revealed to be supernatural in origin, and has a classic horror story resolution (“Without a shirt”)
  • A smart trickster outwits an evil trickster (“Box Strap Flyer”, The Paw Thing)
  • The reader thinks the worst that could happen has already happened, but then something outrageous and unimaginable is about to happen next. This scene may be so risqué it is left entirely for the reader to imagine. (“Lucky Lips”). This is a popular type of humour shared by many comedians, e.g. by Oliver Jeffers in his picture book Stuck.
  • An object which is terrible turns out to have a silver lining for the main character. (“Cow Dung Custard”)
  • A character accomplishes something using a certain trick which is not revealed to the reader until the final sentence. (“Wunderpants”) This is how heist stories work. The character makes plans behind the scenes. The character has a realisation midway through the story and this is not related to the audience.
  • Rather than a twist, Jennings sometimes uses the inverse: Everything in the story leads to an expected and satisfying payoff… or rather, payback. In “Birdscrap”, the story ends at the point where the highly unempathetic opponent is about to land headfirst in manure. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” we wait for the magic remote to work against the bullies.
  • After a psychological horror sequence, a character realises what they need to do to get themselves out of a horrible situation, so they do it and it works via off-the-page magic. (“The Velvet Throne”)
  • To emphasise his twist, Jennings sometimes gives us the ‘twist’, swiftly followed by the answer to a mystery he has set up. This feels extra satisfying, and can make up for a less-than-stellar twist. He does this in The Cabbage Patch War. We learn in quick succession that the person accused of stealing the cabbage is not the real thief. Then we learn that one character won a weightloss competition by removing his false teeth.
  • A character is killed, then brought back to life with hitherto unseen magic (“Frozen Stiff”).
  • Sometimes a main character works something out before the reader does, then sets about to fix a situation. (Russell works out his mean teacher’s smile has been stolen before we do in “Cracking Up”, “Know All”.)

Uncanny by Paul Jennings Hi-Lo Short Stories

Uncanny book cover showing boy with gas mask on searching with flash light

Uncanny is a hi-lo short story collection by Australian author Paul Jennings, first published 1988.

The original ‘uncanny’ stories were by British writer May Sinclair (1863 – 1946). I read a collection of Sinclair’s uncanny short stories (1923) a few years ago and wasn’t really moved by them. This is because so many writers have emulated Sinclair’s work that hers no longer feel all that original! Sinclair was a heavy influence on H.P. Lovecraft. Now, I wager you’ve heard of him, even if you haven’t heard of her.

Unfortunately, the influence of May Sinclair remains little known. Plus, her writing career was cut short with the onset of Parkinson’s disease in the late 1920s.

The Uncanny May Sinclair stories have plots like this:

  • Two lovers are doomed to repeat their empty affair for the rest of eternity.
  • A female telepath is forced to face the consequences of her actions.
  • The victim of a violent murder has the last laugh on his assailant.
  • An amateur philosopher discovers that there is more to Heaven than meets the eye.

Likewise, Jennings writes ‘circular’ stories in which stories end on the note that this weird thing will continue on forever. Characters in Paul Jennings stories are forced to face the consequences of their actions. Underdogs (victims) get the last laugh against their opponents. The stories are set in snail under the leaf settings, where there is more to ordinary life than meets the eye.

Whether directly or indirectly, May Sinclair had an impact on Paul Jennings, across all of his short fiction, and not just in this particular title.


The twist of “On The Bottom” a real groaner. It ends with a dad-joke. It also has an ending typical of picture books, with the main character left with a souvenir from a highly improbable journey.

Uncanny book cover showing tattooed man on bottom of boat


Lucas has a father who doesn’t treat him like an adult. The father steps in to pull a fish in when Lucas is capable of doing it himself.

His problem is that after he finds the finger, he has a tattoo on his own finger. This means he’s in trouble.


Lucas wants to be a man and catch his own fish. This means preparing them as well.


The mystery in a story is set up at the same time (or instead of) the opposition.

Lucas finds a finger inside the shark.


Following directions from his bear tattoo, Lucas finds a tattooed man lying flat in his dinghy far out to sea, almost dead.


The tattoos transfer to Lucas which means he is ostracised. He is in danger of being taken away from his father. He comes close to a psychological death when he becomes a hikikomori in his own house.


The tattooed guy turns up, reveals he’s from the circus, and with a handshake he can get his tattoos back.


Lucas is now free of tattoos, except for one under his underpants. This is a trope used in plenty of fantasy picture books — the main character is left with a souvenir to prove it all really happened, should the reader ever ask. Chris Van Allsburgh uses this in The Polar Express when the boy comes back to his bedroom with a souvenir from his train journey. Margaret Wild also uses it in There’s A Sea In My Bedroom.


The ‘tip’ in “A Good Tip For Ghosts” refers to the local refuse station. I remember tip trips as a kid, and I’m familiar with the sort of person who loves fossicking around in them. There used to be a corner for stuff which other people might want. If it wasn’t entirely useless, you’d put it there. But our local tip has recently put up signs to say no one’s allowed to take anything away. Health and safety. But nobody listens. We live in a semi-rural area, so all sorts of farm castoffs can be found at the tip — trellises, chunks of scrap metal and the like. I know people who have designed their gardens with stuff from the local tip. The father in this story is that kind of guy.


The narrator is embarrassed by his father’s rusty old car and how he fossicks around in the rubbish. He is humiliated by their own poverty, or the appearance thereof. This humiliation is never subverted, unfortunately.


The narrator wants to make a good impression at his new school, because the family has only just moved to this area.


The father, who is embarrassing him in front of a rich kid.

The policeman who pulls them over at first may function as an opponent but he turns out to be friendly. Jennings uses the policeman as a storyteller. This turns him into a false opponent ally, though it does turn out he’s got the story slightly wrong.

Gribble, the archetypal school bully who sets up an initiation challenge.

Old Chompers is the big bad supernatural opposition. We assume he ‘chomps’ children to death.


The twins talk about ways to get out of doing the challenge. I believe this is the main reason Jennings chooses twins. As in “Birdscrap”, the boys talk through all the reasons why they’re going to have to go ahead with this challenge of a midnight trip to the tip.


They meet Old Chompers and give him back the false teeth which Gribble gave them at school.


The twist is that Old Chompers is not searching the tip for his lost grandsons at all. He has been searching all this time for his false teeth.


An epilogue section finishes off the school part of the plot, in which the narrator and his brother get their own back on the school bully and establish themselves as top of the social hierarchy.


“Frozen Stiff” is black humour, which revels in the death of animals, probably as a way of coping with the fact that animals (and people) do die. Animals especially die, and we eat them, or our pets eat them.


The young narrator teams up with Old Jack Thaw, who is eccentric. The narrator therefore functions more as the viewpoint character. He’s helping Jack Thaw who can’t read, but nonetheless has a creepy hobby of freezing dead animals and arranging the bodies in alphabetical order according to species.

If you think about this too hard, why on earth would parents let their son hang out with a guy like this? This is the 1980s. You could ask the same of Marty McFly.


In a separate storyline, Jingle Bells is a cow locked up in inhumane conditions. The narrator feels like he has to save her.


The man who locks up the cow is called Gravel. Because this is a Paul Jennings story, you will already know that Gravel will get his punishment.


The narrator will pull the cow shed apart to let in some sunlight. Gravel appears and Jennings inserts a ticking clock — Jingle Bells is destined for the knackery.


In a lengthy madcap scene, which I find distasteful for the female sexualisation of the cow in the train, the young ‘knight’ escapes with the saved ‘princess’ (my words, but this is a spin on that type of tale). The cow craps all over a lady on the train, because that’s how writers punish unlikeable women and girls in stories — by making them dirty.

The cow runs through central Melbourne and the juxtaposition of ‘country’ in the ‘city’ is the source of the humour. The picture book A Particular Cow by Mem Fox tells me that a cow running amok is an especially funny gag. False teeth, cows and — historically — bananas, these all seem to have inherent comic value.

In this big struggle, Jingle Bells ends up dead. Then there is a confrontation with Gravel, who wants the body to sell for pet food.


But when Jack and the narrator find a peaceful, countryside resting place for Jingle Bells, Paul Jennings reveals that the cow isn’t dead at all. While they slept, the ice melted and she walked off.

Jack also reveals that the water he used to thaw Jingle Bells was ‘different’ (magic). He was saving the magic water to bring someone special back to life.

Honestly, this feels like a bit of a hack.


Finally, it is revealed that Gravel has become frozen. But they won’t bring him back to life. Being part of Old Jack Thaw’s collection is his punishment.


In “UFD”, a play on “UFO”, a trickster boy cracks on he’s seen a flying dog. Then he makes that happen. This is a classic fairytale structure.


A boy narrator is in trouble for calling the police about an ‘unidentified flying dog’.


He wants to prove there really is a flying dog. The stakes are raised when he must prove it (and get $1000) or do the dishes every night for three years.


The father and the air force guy who don’t believe the boy.

Then, the symbolically named dog who rips holes in pants.


In a Paul Jennings story the next step isn’t necessarily an obvious step in the direction of fulfilling the main character’s desire. So it is here. The father suggests they go out and get ice cream. This seems kind of random, but Paul Jennings will turn this outing into an opportunity for the boy to vindicate himself (or whatever).


After getting rear-ended at the railway boom gate, father and son meet Mrs Jensen and her mean bull terrier, Ripper. Mrs Jensen can be the witness to the accident. There is also another (hugely coincidental incident) in which the father rams the back of a mean trucker. So they do need Mrs Jensen as witness testimony.

The boy acts as mediator and approaches Mrs Jensen for this role. She ties her dog to the boom gate.


The set-up leads to a comic payoff in a more classic comedy structure — the boom gate goes up and flings the dog in the air.


The boy now has $1000 dollars because he has proven the existence of a flying dog.

It is never revealed to us why he called the authorities about a UFD in the first place, which I consider a huge hole in the story. I believe Hitchcock would call this a refrigerator moment. I’m not meant to be thinking about this. I’m meant to be just chuckling at the vision of a mean dog flying through the air and ending up in a swimming pool.


“Cracking Up” is an interesting set of symbols which are related in a Word Association kind of way but which never link in any coherent manner: The maidenhair fern links to the tickling of the ghost which links to the teacher’s wig. This symbol web creates a set of comical connections.


Russell Dimsey is picked by the designated teacher’s pet to take home the mean teacher’s maiden hair plant. He doesn’t want this.


Russell wants to avoid being responsible for Mr Snapper’s precious maiden hair fern.


Mr Snapper. I can’t understand why Mr Snapper would entrust care of his precious plant to students he teaches, but I don’t think Paul Jennings worries about lampshading things like that. The nasty characters in his work are nasty AND illogical.

Lucy Watkins (though it creeps me out that a male teacher has ‘chosen’ a girl in this way). My mind goes off the page.

Lucy waits for Russell outside his new house specifically to tell him that the place is haunted.

The ghost, Samuel. Paul Jennings is smart by writing the following sentences:

I now know that you can only see ghosts if they want you to see them. He wanted me to see him. But not Mum.

That tells us two things: Something Russell has realised and something about the opponent’s desire. (Interesting opponents need their own desire lines.)


Russell has no choice but to go to school and admit to Snapper that Sad Samuel has broken the pot. (Well, I suppose he could have chosen to lie, but Russell chooses truth.)


This story, written in parts, contains a sequence of big struggles rather than a single big one.

The Battle begins when Snapper grabs Russell by the shirt front.

He wags school and ends up laughing a funeral when Sad Samuel starts tickling him.

There’s a showdown between Russell and his mother.

Finally he is reprimanded and shamed in front of a large audience (assembly). Writers often place characters in front of many people if they want to emphasise the significance of a speech or the climax of a big struggle. We see it also in Pixar’s Brave, in Big Love, with the middle wife giving a speech from the rooftop, in Tootsie. Once you start noticing it, you see it everywhere.


This is a story in which the main character has worked something out earlier. Eventually the reader works it out, too.

Russell has discovered that Snapper’s smile has been taken. If he gives it back, he’ll have a nice teacher again.


Snapper is now known as Smiley.


Greensleeves is a popular piece of classical music and I’ve wondered myself why it is called Greensleeves. Nobody knows. Paul Jennings must have wondered, too, and he uses it to gross-out effect in this short story. This is one of the more gross stories of his oeuvre and I had a hard time getting through it.

This story is probably inspired by the real life incident in which a 45-foot sperm whale washed up on the beach in Florence, Oregon on 9 November 1970. The council decided to blow it up. To save you from looking it up, the story ends in disaster.


Father and son are dual main characters, and complete underdogs. They have no money, live in a caravan (what Americans might call a ‘trailer’ or a ‘mobile home’). They therefore need to earn money in any way they can.

The son is more of an underdog than the father because he has to do as his father tells him, without any choice.


Father and son want $5000, which is enough for a deposit for a house. (Oh, those were the days.)


The mayor is the father’s equivalent opponent; the mayor’s son is our main character’s same-age opponent. Mayor and son are power hungry. They go back on their word. They blame others for their own mistakes.


Father and son will remove the dead whale from the nearby beach, which is decomposing and stinking up the entire town of Port Niranda. Nobody has been able to remove it, but the father has a plan and it involves the son getting inside the whale to place dynamite inside it. He’ll wear a gas mask so he can stand it.

Unfortunately this plan explodes, badly, literally. The mayor’s son has tampered with the dynamite and bits of whale blow all over the town. It will cost $5000 to clean up, so they don’t get their reward.

Father and son do good by helping to clean up the town. As in a fairytale, they are rewarded by ‘the gods’ when the son discovers a lump of ambergris has landed on a pillow. Paul Jennings uses the appearance of a ‘little man’ who is after just this product, and will pay not $5000 but $10000. Unfortunately, Nick Steal (who ‘doesn’t steal’) takes it and throws it around like a ball.

The stakes are raised when the father confronts the mayor again about stolen ambergris. “We search the room, and if we don’t find anything we leave Port Niranda tomorrow.”


The action scene where the whale blows up is a man versus nature type big struggle.  The boy loses his precious watch. (Watches were expensive back in the 1980s.) As for the interpersonal big struggles:

First Battle: Father and son confront the mayor saying it was his boy’s fault but mayor does not believe this.

Second Battle: The confrontation in Nick Steal’s room.


Paul Jennings does not mind coincidence. The degree of coincidence is itself comical.

As they all stand in Nick Steal’s room, Greensleeves starts playing. This is the tune that plays on the missing watch. Nick has put it in a trapdoor under a rug in his room. The ambergris just happens to have the missing watch embedded in it. So Nick Steal’s cover is blown because of the tune.


Father and son are richly rewarded. They don’t have to leave town and I imagine they used this money to buy a better house.


“Mousechap” is a body swap story. Paul Jennings has written a few of these. In one of his Gizmo novellas a boy accidentally swaps bodies with a dog. In this case, an uncle swaps bodies with a mouse. It’s up to the boy to save his uncle from a domestic abuse situation.


Dung beetles a.k.a. scarab beetles have been associated with reincarnation for a long time, especially in places like Egypt. It’s thought that being a shit roller is the worst thing you could possibly be, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that dung beetles seem to enjoy it, because they are dung beetles… If you’ve ever seen dung beetles at work, they are fascinating creatures. And they seem quite happy to me.

Australia imported farm animals long before it successfully imported dung beetles (though they did try, as early as 1900). The Australian Dung Beetle Project was happening big time as Jennings conceived this story. I can tell you that around here, where we live, years with good dung beetle activity mean far fewer flies. Dung beetles mean I can go for a walk without a net over my hat in summer. So dung beetles are my favourite animal.


Julian doesn’t have any choice, but each year he is sent to holiday at his Uncle Sid and Aunt Scrotch’s house. But Aunt Scrotch doesn’t even like him.

He is afraid of the dark, or of the eyes which shine at him through the darkness of the bedroom.

Julian’s dung beetle is set up as a Chehov’s gun. He puts it into a matchbox in his pocket.


When Julian works out that there’s cheese everywhere around the house, he wants to find out why. (Jennings introduces a mystery.)

The reader will make the connection that cheese attracts mice (even though real mice prefer other foodstuffs — mice and cheese are culturally connected). Mice prefer sweet foods, grains and especially peanut butter.


Just by the name we know Aunt Scrotch is an opponent, but Paul Jennings is very clear about it: We are told she doesn’t like boys. Yet Julian wants to take a dung beetle with him to stay at her house for the holidays. So we have the classic crotchety aunt type against the rough-and-tumble, innocently dirty boy type.

It is gradually revealed by the narrator that Uncle Sid is not around. Something has happened to him. The reader probably catches on — after the mouse walks on two legs and prays — that Uncle Sid has turned into a mouse. In chapter two we see Uncle Sid locked up as prisoner, and behaving like a mouse.


Julian sets Uncle Sid free but this is a mistake because Aunt Scrotch has a cat.

After the first revelation Julian plans to save his uncle who is trapped in a mouse’s body. ‘Suddenly I knew what to do’. Julian puts his uncle in his pocket, and I’m remembering there’s a dung beetle also in there.


There’s a chase scene around the house, which involves a near miss with a mouse trap.

The second Battle is where Aunt Scrotch tries to regain control of the body swap machine.

The third and final Battle involves Aunt Scrotch turning into a dung beetle.


The first revelation (from a ripped diary page) is that the uncle has been body swapped because the mouse-trap electric fence switches brains over if two creatures touch the wire at the same time.

Julian is much slower to catch on that the reader. But in case the reader hasn’t picked it up, we are told exactly what happened after this revelation.


Uncle Sid is back to his normal human self and Aunt Scrotch has been turned into a dung beetle as punishment, in this Buddhism inspired tale.

Julian keeps Aunt Scrotch in his pocket but his cruelty is lesser — he gives it as many chocolate freckles as it wants (Aunt Scrotch’s favourite food).


Certain items are inherently comic. Marina Warner has written at length about the comedy value of bananas, for instance. And for kids, spaghetti is another funny item because it looks like worms. Pigs, at least in the West, are also inherently funny. Our idea of pigs (stupid and dirty) is quite different from how pigs actually are (intelligent and clean). Paul Jennings makes the most of spaghetti and pigs in this gross-out short story, though ‘pig’ only appears in the title. The character of Guts is therefore compared to a pig.


Paul Jennings deftly paints a picture of how bullying works in the opening of “Spaghetti Pig-Out” by describing how certain individuals are chosen to be the designated outcast. People who talk to an outcast lose social status themselves. This is a more nuanced picture of bullying than most of his stories offer. The character of Shaun, introduced later, is also realistic: Neither a friend nor a foe — simply too scared to stand up against the established hierarchy.

The narrator is the designated outcast in this milieu. This is possibly because he is poor, though the direct link is never made.

Matthew has a cat called Bad Smell. She farts. If you’ve read a lot of Paul Jennings you’ll know by now that this will come in handy later: The farting cat is the Chekhov’s Gun.

See also: Walter The Farting Dog (a New Zealand picture book).


The narrator wants to avoid being targeted by Guts Garvey and also wants a friend or two of his own.

When it is revealed that the cat has been turned into a remote controlled cat, Matthew wants to learn how to use her. (This trope is also used in Wellington Paranormal Series 1, Episode 6, which concludes with the police officers realising the zombified victims are remote controlled.)


Guts Garvey — a ‘real mean kid’.


Matthew’s plan aligns with his desire — he discovers how the remote control works by using it, in typical kid fashion (playing around with it).

When he learns that he can control insects, I’m reminded of a scene out of a completely different story — Eye In The Sky — a war thriller film starring Helen Mirren and various others. (One of the most suspenseful films I’ve seen lately.)

Matthew continues in carnivalesque fashion, playing rather than planning. He discovers the remote control works on people — first on his father, next on strangers. To keep reader empathy with Matthew, Matthew discovers this by accident.


When the bully and his sidekick get a hold of the magical remote control, Matthew becomes victim of it.

Adult readers might remember from the 1980s and 90s that VCRs only pause for a few minutes, to avoid pixel burnout, and this functionality saves Matthew from being paused permanently. So, Matthew is still not planning his way out of this predicament — he is a hapless character who responds to crises in the moment. He is a low-mimetic hero (by Northrop Frye’s classification).

Paul Jennings must have realised that this to-and-fro with the remote control alone doesn’t make for a big enough climax, so he introduces a spaghetti-eating competition in part 7.

Circumstances out of his own control lead Matthew to regain control of the magic remote. And because Matthew doesn’t ‘plan’ — he ‘reacts’, Paul Jennings ensures he can’t be held responsible for the bully character eating his own vomit. Because that would be mean, right? That would make him seem vindictive.

Yet the reader is fully encouraged to delight in this punishment.


The reader realises that Matthew will no longer be at the very bottom of the social hierarchy because something really gross just happened to someone else.


Guts Garvey is not unpopular and Matthew now has a lot of friends. In another (more didactic) story “The Busker”, Paul Jennings delivers a lecture about how you can’t buy friendship or romance.

But when it suits the story you can, and according to “Spaghetti Pig-out” you can buy friends with a magical device.


“Know All” stars a girl, because this is a take on the Greek tale of “Pandora’s Box”. In the myth, Pandora is created like a modern sex doll as the perfect specimen of womanhood and treated as a chattel. But there is one thing wrong with Pandora — she is too curious for her own good. The next part of the myth is like something out of a Jennings story — a massive stink comes out when she opens it. This stands for wickedness and evil. By my take, she finally realised she’s nothing more than a chattel and that misogyny exists. She’s now a woke feminist, and in this situation, this is a terrible realisation. But then she releases ‘hope’ from the box — the one good thing Zeus put inside it. The idea is that “sometimes you’re better off not knowing”. In modern speak, the power of positive thinking allows Pandora to exist within a misogynistic system of power.

What is Paul Jennings going to do with his Pandora character in “Know All?” Will he punish the girl main character for being a Know All? Or will her girly knowledge help her with a problem?

tl;dr: Kate is rewarded for her intellectual capacity, and I’m sure this story will be coded as feminist by many.

This is an outdated form of feminism, however, in which girls are viewpoint characters for the fun exploits of men and boys. The girls don’t undergo a character arc because they are already mature and sensible at the beginning of the story. This means Kate is not the main character. She doesn’t get a story of her own.

Do the boys in Paul Jennings stories get character arcs? Not exactly. These are comic characters. But they often rise in the social hierarchy, which is a Jennings stand-in for ‘character arc’. Kate does rise in the estimation of her own father, within the realm of the family rather than the realm of the outside world.


Matthew is Kate’s brother, because as everyone knows, boys won’t read stories about girls. There needs to be an ensemble cast so boys can relate. (Insert irony punctuation.)

Matthew accuses Kate of being a Know All when Kate doesn’t want to open the box they find on the beach as buried treasure. We already know from the first sentence that opening the box was bad.

Kate is also accused of being a sad sack. Bear in mind, this is first person narration from Kate. She is mostly the viewpoint character and aligns with the audience, who shares her ‘intuition’ that the costumes inside the box are bad. The characters who get them all into trouble are the father and son, who don’t seem to possess intuition. The blunder forth and have fun.


Kate wants her family to put the costumes back in the box.


They put the clothes on the scarecrow, which gives human form to the evil that comes out of the box. The scarecrow looks like superman, which is how most Greek gods are depicted (well, more like He-man actually.


The father has a plan when he decides to dress the Scarecrow in the clothes. But after that, the magic itself determines what happens.


Most of this story is a carnivalesque caper as the clothes make its wearers perform like circus people.

The father accuses Kate of being a Know All. He doesn’t believe the clothes are magic. In an antifeminist move he makes her cook tea for them both as punishment.

The life and death big struggle happens in video game fashion, atop a cliff with perilous holes in the ground. It’s a real action scene.


For no apparent reason, Kate is sure “there’s help in the box”. This is in line with the Greek myth. Why the hell does Pandora open that box a second time? No reason given. That’s how Greek mythology works. In the Greek myth, ‘hope’ comes out last, so that is definitely the right thing to do. Perhaps Kate is familiar with the Greek myth.

Ultimately, Kate saves the day.

It is revealed that Kate knows exactly what to do because she put on the fortune teller’s costume.


This twist at the end lampshades the fact that Kate has no reason to know all this stuff. It kind of subverts the Female Maturity Formula, but not really, because she was the designated mature female even before she put on the costume.

Unmentionable by Paul Jennings

Unmentionable Paul Jennings

Unmentionable (1991) is a collection of 9 hi-lo short stories by iconic Australian author Paul Jennings.


In “Ice Maiden”, a boy falls in love with an ice statue, but he gets over his love for the ice once he meets a real girl.

I have some sympathy for the phenomenon whereby adolescents lust after (hopefully) safe targets — celebrities, cartoon characters, teachers, coaches. These objects feel safe because they will never reciprocate our nascent lust.

“Ice Maiden” is about the humiliation sometimes felt when lusting after someone — or something — utterly unattainable.

There are strong echoes of Pygmalion in any story with a plot like this. Jennings has rewritten Pygmalion knowingly, with mention of a Greek statue. I’ve written about Pygmalion previously. The Greek myth is inherently sexist. When writing this humorous retelling for kids, Paul Jennings didn’t manage to subvert that aspect at all. I don’t believe he manages any subversion in “Ice Maiden”.

The image of the beautiful frozen girl is also inside a glass case, which has echoes of fairytales such as Snow White.


I just wouldn’t go anywhere near a redhead.

Jennings opens the story like that and I’m immediately suspicious. But Jennings reassures us:

Now don’t get me wrong and start calling me a hairist or something like that. Listen to what I have to say, then make up your mind.

The moral shortcoming of the narrator is that he doesn’t like redheads, and refuses to be friends with Mr Mantolini’s cousin.


The narrator wants to continue lusting after an ice statue in the fish shop window, but she’s about to perish under the hot sun. His object of desire will no longer exist.


Mr Mantolini, who wants to replace the statue of an ice maiden with a new one.


My plan was to take her to the butcher. I would pay him to keep the ice maiden in his freezer where I could visit her every day.

Jennings makes use of a ticking clock device:

The sun was rising in the sky. I had to hurry.


The Battle sequence begins with the narrator kissing the ice statue on the mouth. The slap stick gag is that his lips get stuck to her. We all know the gag, and accept that, in stories, ice is dangerous in this way.

The narrator takes the statue into the sea, aiming to melt her in sea water.

Paul Jennings uses the trope of ‘life flashing before eyes’ to insert back story, including the revelation that the narrator himself has red hair. At least, it’s a reveal if you aren’t reading an edition with this picture on the front:

Ice Maiden Paul Jennings

This is meant to be a subversion of redhead bigotry. I.e., You can’t possibly hate red headed people if you have red hair yourself. But this doesn’t take into account the phenomenon of internalised hatred and lateral violence. So this reveal feels like a failed ‘subversion’ to me.


The entire story feels as if it were written around a pithy closing paragraph:

I guess that’s when I discovered that an ice maiden who is dead is not sad. And a nice maiden who is red, is not bad.

A big reveal is that the narrator’s red hair probably helped save him (because it made him more visible to rescuers in the water). We are therefore meant to conclude that red hair is a good thing now.

Another big reveal is that ‘Tony’ is a girl. She is beautiful despite being a red head. This reveal is a little forced. Tony is a gender neutral name, but this is the way boys spell it. All the girl Tonis I’ve known have spell their name with an ‘i’. However, once Jennings spelt the name with a ‘y’, he had to keep spelling it like that. Or, chose to.

The reveal also relies upon a fractured, non-native rendition of English of Mr Mantolini, which doesn’t quite work.


We extrapolate that the boy is no longer sad about losing the ice version of a crush because he can now fixate upon the girl who inspired the ice creation, in the same objectifying, dehumanising way.

If the reader is familiar with the ur-Story of Pygmalion, we might imagine they will have a son and daughter together.


“Birdman” plays on the wish fulfilment fantasy of flying, common in children’s literature. It also fulfils the fantasy of winning against your biggest enemy.


Sean wants to win a flying competition. We deduce he’s after prestige.


Sean is trying to fly.


Spider is ostensibly an ally, helping Sean to fly. But he’s also encouraging Sean to perform beyond his capability. The boy friendship combo in which our main character is the Every Boy and his best friend is an even lower-mimetic hero is common, even today. We see it in Wimpy Kid (Greg is the Every Boy, Rowley is his chubby, hapless best friend); we see it in Monster House (DJ and Chowder); we see it most famously in Harry Potter (Harry Potter and Ron Wesley). When we see it in Hollywood, often with grown men, these are known as Buddy Comedies.

Note that Jennings has used the trick of alliterative names to link two characters together. (Both Spider and Sean begin with ‘s’. Katherine Mansfield, who wrote a very different sort of short story, made use of this also e.g. in “The Garden Party“.)

Buggins is the kid who always wins the competition. He is also vindictive. He deliberately ruins Sean’s wings. This is the big bad opponent.

The mother is an opponent because she doesn’t want her son to participate in this competition.


Without really requiring a plan, Sean and Spider happen upon ‘treasure’ buried at the beach. They find a dead cat in the shape of a hat, which is a blend of gross-out and black humour.

Their plan is to pick up the uncle’s hang glider from the railway station. But they are dismissed by the authority figures there. The cat takes over Spider’s body and makes him boom like a man. The hat is thereby proven magic, in a way hats often are. With a hat, a character changes roles completely.


The boys know immediately that the cat opens its eyes and copies what it sees. This leads to a series of humiliation gags:

  • The father puts on the cat hat and ends up eating dog food like the dog
  • Sean follows girls into the changing room, in a gag which I doubt was ever funny to girls. It now has an extra level of ick post Trump’s boasts about hanging out in the changing rooms at Miss Teen USA competitions.


At first Sean and Spider choose not to use the cat hat, because it’s too unpredictable and risky to make use of in a high stakes flying competition.

But of course the cat hat is used. We expect this. The revelation is in how it’s going to be used.


We extrapolate that Buggins will end up with poo on his head and face. This is a highly satisfying ending for many in the child audience. As a kid I was delighted by Roald Dahl’s poem “The Cow” included in Dirty Beasts, which ends:

She dived and using all her power
She got to sixty miles an hour
‘’Bombs gone!’’ she cried. ‘’Take that’’ she said,
And dropped a cowpat on his head.

I took my copy of Dirty Beasts to school. Our teacher read it naively, but before he had read the final line, he cast the book aside in disgust. My classmates turned to me and with accusing tones said I’d personally ruined storytime (which they wanted to last longer). Obviously, I’m scarred for life. (But not by the vengeful poo conclusion.)


From the title of “Little Squirt” we can tell: A small boy underdog gets his own back after being bullied by larger boys than him.

This is so short it’s almost micro fiction. It’s a story of a literal pissing contest between boys.


The story opens with an actual pissing competition (used metaphorically mostly, to describe hierarchical struggles between boys and men). Sure enough, Weesle is little and therefore at the bottom of the hierarchy.


Weesle wants to be better than his big brother at competitions.


Sam and the other boys, who are bigger and therefore better than him at competitions.


His mother sits him down and tells him to practise. If he practises, he’ll be better than the other boys.


By talking about the running race, Jennings misdirects us. We don’t see the big finale of the running race; we see a repeat of the pissing competition in the toilets.


The gag is that when the earnest mother sat Weesle down and told him to practise, Weesle didn’t interpret that as ‘practise for the running race’. He interpreted that as ‘practise for the pissing competition’.


Weesle is now proud of himself.


“The Mouth Organ” feels like Paul Jennings making up for his hitherto use and misuse of girl characters. The main character in this story is a girl. The saviour is a woman. Right there, on the page, Jennings writes:

There’s nothing to say that the man has to be the brave one. Why shouldn’t it be a woman?

Why a girl in this story? I have a working theory that stories with heavily symbolic use of trees tend to be more feminine, especially when the trees are a flowering variety. Flowers = pretty = femininity.


The exact nature of the problem is revealed slowly.

Nicole has accidentally killed a tree. The tree must flower, because until it flowers, Mr Hardbristle has — with no real rhyme nor reason — decided that he won’t forgive himself for his wife’s death until the magnolia tree, planted upon her grave, flowers.

Nicole feels that it is her personal responsibility to mange the feelings of Mr Hardbristle, which is another reason why Jennings may have (unconsciously or consciously) chosen a girl to be the main character of this one. In stories, across the board, girls are considered givers of emotional labour. A stand-out example of this dynamic in children’s literature is a Nick Bland picture book called The Very Cranky Bear. In that story, a female sheep saves the day by donating her own fleece. The gendering of the animals in that story is no accident.


Nicole wants to replace the dead magnolia tree, which will eventually make Mr Hardbristle happy.


Nicole wants Mr Hardbristle to be happy and to forgive himself. Mr Hardbristle can’t seem to manage that, despite his extra decades of emotional maturity, so that makes Mr Hardbristle the girl’s opponent.

When the man with the mouth organ appears, we wait to see if this guy is an opponent or an ally. This is a Paul Jennings story so we know: He’ll be an opponent at first, until the child learns to use the magic he gives her. Then, when she has learned to manipulate his magic, he’ll be proven a firm ally.


Busk, earn money, buy a new magnolia tree.

This plan isn’t working at first because nobody gives Nicole much money.


There is a level 1 metadiegetic level to this story which describes the fire which killed Mrs Hardbristle. This has its own big struggle — in fact, it’s mostly big struggle sequence.

The big struggle sequence of the level 0 busking story starts with a slapstick, carnivalesque scene in which tourists rip their clothes off because the girl is playing a strip tease tune.

Paul Jennings makes use of a ticking clock (it feels a little forced) because the mouth organ wants to return to its owner. She needs to earn $1000 for a tree but she hasn’t got enough yet.

Nicole has a personal big struggle with the mouth organ itself when it lodges itself inside her mouth, like a sideways banana. This puts her classmates in a trance:

The class close around me with outstretched fingers. Their nails are like claws.

The entire class chases her through town as if they are wild animals.


When Nicole has been through the mill, accidentally turning the townsfolk to wood, she meets the Ponytail Guy again.

There’s been a misunderstanding. The Ponytail Guy reveals that the mouth organ ‘does good for those who do good. And bad for those who do bad.’

When Nicole tells him what she wants money for, the mouth organ suddenly starts to do good.


The story ends on a ‘tune of love’. The magnolia tree is in full bloom.

This is a very feminine ending and I would have liked Paul Jennings to use a boy main character for this story. Ironically, perhaps, this would have been more gender subversive.


“The Velvet Throne” is a bit of a departure for Paul Jennings. The main character is not a child. The twist is a little more difficult to piece together. It relies on a basic knowledge of divination — the practice of seeking knowledge of the future or the unknown by supernatural means.


Mr Simpkin is a carer for his brother — Gobble — who has an insatiable appetite. Mr Simpkin is a victim of this appetite because there’s never enough food left for him, and Gobble makes insatiable demands. Gobble is verbally abusive.

Mr Simpkin is spineless, which is his main problem. This character flaw allows him to be mistreated.


This is the story of a downtrodden man’s awakening. He starts off wanting to keep his brother happy and go to work, but he will develop a real Desire in the Anagnorisis.

In the meantime, he needs a proxy desire, to get him to that point. He wants to get away from his opponent…


Gobble, Mr Simpkin’s brother, who is enormously fat. emotionally abusive and demanding. Gobble is a human dragon character, sitting on a hoard of money which belongs to Mr Simpkin in the first place.

The man who locks Mr Simpkin in the toilet block.


He’s doing a bit of a Marion Crane, though with his own money, by running away and booking into a hotel.

That’s the plan, but he gets locked in the public toilet.


The night in the toilet block is pure psychological horror. And it plays on a fear we’ve probably all had at some point — getting locked inside a building because we haven’t managed to find our way out before closing time. Some of these fantasies are utopian — getting locked in a supermarket and eating all the marshmallows. But this one is dystopian. It’s cold, it rains, and toilet wall graffiti functions as divination.


The revelation is that whatever’s written on the toilet wall as graffiti comes true. So Mr Simpkin realises he can get rid of his abusive brother in one fell swoop.


He writes damning graffiti on the wall, gets home and finds he no longer has a brother.


“Cry Baby” is more like “The Mouth Organ” than any other of his stories, both in structure and in tone. This one stars a boy who cries, which is gender transgressive for Paul Jennings. Unfortunately the entire story is called “Cry Baby”, which shames a boy for his tears, undoing what might otherwise be a nice message — that a boy crying actually saved the day.

There is the weirdness of the bum on photocopier, which today doesn’t have quite the same air of jocularity to it. We’re a lot more careful about images of naked children these days, even ones taken by the children themselves, because we have to be.


Gavin, a.k.a. Cry Baby’s shortcoming is that he cries more than is socially acceptable for a boy. He is also a non-judicious prankster. (An odd combination, now I think about it.)

His problem is that he’s been suspended from school for photocopying his butt and putting it on the pinboard. Another sulky mother — the mother won’t talk to him.

The school incident is a bit of a MacGuffin. His next problem is that he cries on his mother’s precious writing pad and ruins it.


Gavin wants to get himself out of trouble.


Teacher followed by mother.

Then the road rage men, covered in tattoos, back when only rough characters got tatts. (Now pretty much every second Australian seems to have tatts.) Tellingly, they’re driving a Ford.


Outside, looking for his mother, Gavin just happens to spy his grandfather, who is off on a trip to find the water-holding frog. These are frogs who live in Western Australia. They have adapted to a climate with a rainy season followed by lengthy drought.

Gavin decides to escape his mother’s anger by taking off on a frog-scouting jaunt with his grandfather.

It doesn’t take much to endanger your own life in the Australian outback. Leaving the tap of water on will do it.


The Battle sequence is Gavin looking for the frog while his grandfather naps, almost dead of thirst, according to Gavin.


He finds the frog by crying on the ground. His anagnorisis is that something shameful can save the day.


I’m wondering if they’re going to have to suck the frog dry in order to survive. People do gross things for water. But by complete coincidence, at that exact moment, there’s a rain storm. So I extrapolate that they don’t need to kill the frog they’ve come in search of.


“Ex Poser” is another very short story based around humiliating someone — a girl, this time — for adolescent nascent love. This set up feels borderline abusive. My problem with this story is that the narrator’s actions and intentions are rewarded with the love of a popular, rich girl. His humiliation tactics are never questioned, because the reader will side with him, the underdog. Also, girls aren’t stupid. Girls don’t typically like boys who humiliate them, and I hate to see it modelled.


A boy has pimples and he is not rich. He feels he has bad luck because of this.


When a boy called Boffin makes an accurate lie detector, the boy would like to humiliate the snobbiest girl in the class by asking her questions about her love life. He does this in front of an audience for maximum impact.


The narrator’s love opponent is the girl he humiliates.


He plans to ask Sandra Morris embarrassing questions for the sheer joy of humiliation.


The Battle scene is where the narrator asks Sandra who she likes.


The big twist is that she doesn’t like the equally rich and popular boy in the class — she likes him.


I’d like to think Sandra realises she doesn’t want to be with a boy who humiliates her and reveals that she only said that to get him back for the stunt, but this is a happy ever after ending. Boy gets girl.


“Sloppy Jalopy” is another revenge story, this time against a teacher who confiscates jewellery. Before he is able to exact revenge, the young narrator must endure quite a lot of humiliating hijinks himself.


A boy isn’t allowed to wear an earring to school. His father is also a character who does wacky things like cut the top off a standard Holden to turn it into a (non) convertible in the name of uniqueness. This means they can’t go out in the rain.


He wants his earring replaced.


The teacher who confiscates his earring, along with the chorus of his sister, who seems to agree with the teacher about no jewellery at school.

Next the father is an opponent for being wacky.

Inside the earring shop, the opponents sell the boy an earring which attracts rubbish.

The main opponent is the filthy tanker truck who covers them in muck. This reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s early film Duel (basically Jaws but set on a highway).


The narrator will escape the rubbish by getting into a taxi. This doesn’t work. The taxi becomes dangerously covered in rubbish.


This story is somewhat divided in two — the first Battle is the near death experience after the narrator is covered in gunk.

The second half of the story is the big struggle against every bit of rubbish which wants to stick to him. This is the Muck Monster trope. Except there’s no environmental message. This is pure gross-out slapstick comedy.


After the taxi big struggle, the revelation is that the earring is what’s attracting rubbish. He gets the earring back from the taxi driver.


The new plan, which belongs to the bookended story set at school, is to take the earring to school in a jar (apparently if it’s inside a glass jar it doesn’t attract rubbish), and hope to get it confiscated so that the mean teacher will become covered in rubbish.

We extrapolate that this is what happens next, creating a circular story structure.


“Eyes Knows” is a cautionary tale against doing things just because someone else says so. The wrapper story is the more serious narrative of a child who is forced to choose between his separating parents.


The main character has been sabotaged by a ‘little robot man’ who tells him what to do. The problem is that he’s now stuck high up a ladder, scared that he will fall.

In the backstory we learn that Harry is in a vulnerable position because his parents are separating. They are forcing him to make a decision about who he wants to live with. This is an impossible choice. In this vulnerable position, he accepted the appearance of a decision-maker.

Jennings uses a save the cat moment near the beginning of the story (save the caterpillar).


Harry wants to be able to make a decision. Since he can’t, he is going to outsource it. Once he decides to put his trust in the robot man, he no longer has to make any moral decisions.


Since Jennings opened with Harry in peril we know from the start that the robot man is his opponent. (A fake ally opponent, to be specific.)


Now Harry has been established as a do-gooder (with the caterpillars), he continues on his do-gooder mission when he tries to save the old people from the nurse, who treats them like children.


Harry and the old people embark upon a carnivalesque escape. In a trope utilised later by Speed, one of the characters on that bus has a history of fast driving (because he used to be a racing car driver, not because he got lots of speeding tickets).


When Harry entrusts the robot to make the divorce decision for him (in the wrapper story of separating parents), he realises this shouldn’t be his decision to make. He confronts his parents, who come to their own realisation.


Harry discards the little robot and other kids find it. This creates another circular story, in which we imagine a similar caper happening all over again.

Unbelievable by Paul Jennings Hi-lo Short Fiction

Unbelievable Paul Jennings

Unbelievable is a short story collection by Australian author Paul Jennings, copyrighted 1986. These are tall tales for eight-year-olds. Australia has a long history of tall tales, and Jennings very successfully adapted the techniques for a child audience. The 1980s was the decade of the irreverent male children’s author. Roald Dahl was the stand-out giant in this field, after starting out writing stories for adults. These days we have David Walliams and various other male authors. This genre of story continues to be a masculine domain, even though children’s literature is an industry full of women. This is carried over in Jennings’ stories for children.

In 1986 I was 8 years old, so the perfect age for Paul Jennings. When I look back on the creative writing myself around this age, they were very Paul Jennings-esque — usually written in the present tense, first person narrative, with a mischievous Every Boy as the main character, navigating his way through a perplexing suburban life, which would be boring and irritating if it weren’t for regular fantasy interruptions. So it’s very strange that I have no recollection of reading the work of Paul Jennings. Either I read them as a child and forgot that I did, or these stories were simply typical of the era. Roald Dahl is similar in many ways, and I certainly read Dahl’s entire oeuvre, numerous times over.

There are just nine short stories in the Unbelievable collection, which makes for a short book. ‘Reluctant’ readers could therefore enjoy the achievement of finishing an entire book without ploughing through a massive word count. (‘Reluctant’ often describes kids who haven’t yet learned to read fluently, which means reading itself is a lot of work. These kids are usually really up for a good story, if it’s accessible to them.)


According to the Accelerated Reader website, another book in the Jennings’ ‘Un’ series has 32,000 words.

With about 9 stories to each collection, each story averages 3,555 words. That’s across 110 pages. In reality, the stories vary in length between about 1500 words to almost 6000.

These stories are not illustrated, which is slightly unusual for stories aimed at the emergent reader.


A boy gets his hands on a machine which allows you to alter your age.


The main characters in Paul Jennings stories are the Every Boy. This boy is addressed as a ‘lad’ on the first page.

Because he is an Every Boy, we don’t know his specific psychological shortcomings and needs. We only know he is stuck in an external problematic situation. His problem is that he’s at a new school and has already found himself sitting outside the principal’s office.

Like all children everywhere, this Every Boy is lacking in autonomy and power, at the mercy of the adults around him.

But at the start of the second section, Jennings does give this particular Every Boy his own psychological shortcoming:

I am a very nervous person. Very sensitive. I get scared easily. I am scared of the dark. I am scared of ghost stories. I am even scared of the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street.


Jennings gives the boy a romantic desire, which turns out to be necessary to the plot.

Notice that the female characters in the stories are female archetypes: In this particular story we have the young sex object and her inverse in many ways, the horny old lady (who has the hots for John McEnroe). Was McEnroe a sex symbol of the era? I don’t remember, but I suspect Jennings chose him for the minor comic value.

John McEnroe

Presumably, this boy also has the desire to get out of trouble. This is assumed.


The reader relates to the boy because the boy makes a social faux pax, taking the piss out of the principal when he doesn’t have the information that this is the principal. (That’s why Jennings had to make him the new boy.)

The boy’s opponent is henceforth the principal, ‘Old Splodge’, who gives him the strap. This story was written just before laws were passed outlawing corporal punishment in schools. I remember a few kids (boys) getting the strap — one for pushing another kid off the top of the adventure playground, and another for giving a girl the brown-eye as the first of the girls’ cohort of cross-country runners caught up to the tail end of the boys. (The boys ran first.) He had the option of either the strap or a week of rubbish duty, so he chose the higher prestige option, after his mother gave the go-ahead.

This was in Year 8. The same boy, that same year, went on to sexually assault my friend in the back of a car full of kids being driven home from a birthday party. Nobody believed the girl… I had been picked up from the party earlier by my own mother, who didn’t feel comfortable leaving me there — so she related to me many years later. Her intuitions were right, because the party was badly supervised, by parents who scared me.

But I digress. Suffice to say, corporal punishment never worked. What that boy needed was intensive psychological intervention.

Notice how Jennings makes full use of descriptive nick names. We’re not told why the principal is called Old Splodge, but the ‘Old’ part is important.

Jennings is also making use of another subconscious bias — the bias against people who transgress gender rules. We are supposed to dislike the principal for wearing a pink bow tie, emphasis on pink. Pink is for girls and unattractively effeminate men. How is this boy supposed to respect a principal who has the outward appearance of a girly boy? He’s not supposed to, and neither are we.


The Every Boy in Paul Jennings tales tends to go along for the ride. Weird things happen, then more weird things happen and he finds himself out of his situation through sheer good luck, and sometimes a bit of cunning.

In this case, The Every Boy narrator happens to get into a train carriage with some very strange people. Turns out they have a machine that can increase and decrease their ages.


It hasn’t been clear to me until I analyse the story for The Battle, but this is actually a story with two diegetic levels. There’s the Level 0 story of a boy who has been sent to the principal’s office, ostensibly for dying his hair blonde.

Then there’s the Level 1, metadiegetic story embedded in that, in which the Every Boy tells us about what happened on the train yesterday.

The Battle of the Level 0 story is the principal grilling him about dying his hair. Jennings has sectioned this off neatly by calling it Chapter 2.

The Battle of the Level 1 story is between a ‘principal stand-in’ — another, similar authority figure — the guy who checks tickets and, similarly, tries to make everyone follow the rules. And no one wants to follow them.

The authority figure on the train ‘runs off as fast as his legs can take him’, which could be a line straight out of a fairy tale. (Not the Grimm versions, which ended differently — but of various 20th century English retellings. I’m sure I have a retelling of Goldilocks which ends like that.)

Chapter 3 marks the return to the Level 0 story, happening in the principal’s office. The principal has heard the same story we’ve heard and exclaims, “What utter rubbish!”

This is basically a rule in children’s fiction, and even in adult fantasy — nobody believes the main character when they happen upon something amazing and, well, Unbelievable.

But here’s another rule: The main character will eventually be vindicated.


Sure enough the principal has his revelation, because he tries the Age Rager machine which can alter someone’s age.

It is revealed in the end that the principal has disappeared, and that the sexually attractive, 17-year-old school secretary has a new, 18-year-old boyfriend. In case we’re in any doubt about what happened, this new boyfriend wears a pink bow tie.

It’s not 100% clear that the narrator realises the boyfriend is the magically age-reduced principal, which is deliberate — connected these (very easy) dots makes the beginner reader feel smart — possibly smarter than the narrator.

Reading from this time in history, in the midst of a #metoo era, there is something supremely icky about this ‘twist’ ending. In a post hoc analysis of the situation, the seventeen-year-old girl — and she is a girl, not yet able to drink, gamble or vote — was employed — probably by the principal himself — to work closely with him, and he was sexually attracted to her all along. This is a man whose very job is work with… children.

How has Jennings achieved what feels like a ‘twist’ ending? I am rebelling against that word, for some reason, wanting to put it in rubber-glove quotation marks.

To put it in clearer terms, Jennings is using the trick of misdirection. He introduced the 17-year-old receptionist as if she’s a part of the landscape. At the beginning we think she’s a side-detail, similar to a pot-plant in the waiting room, but it’s only at the end we realise she’s the reason for the principal winding his age back. Jennings used a technique known as Chekhov’s gun, but instead of an object, he used a person.

Therein lies my problem with it, on the back of a long, long history of the sexual objectification of young women and predatory old men. For me, the ‘twist’ isn’t funny — it’s not even unexpected. It’s more of a disappointed groan.

There is usually an ironic or cynical tone to such [endings], as if they mean to say “Ha, fooled ya!” You are caught foolishly thinking that human beings are decent or that good does triumph over evil. A less sardonic version of a twist Return can be found in the work of writers like O. Henry, who sometimes used the twist to show the positive side of human nature, as in his short story “The Gift of the Magi

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler


So, the old principal is now the young boyfriend of the attractive 17-year-old girl, who is presumably either too stupid to realise who he is (despite the ostentatious pink bow tie) or too pressured by the hierarchy of the situation to resist his sexual advances.

Child readers don’t encode the narrative like that, of course, because all of this weirdness bubbles under the surface and is completely normalised. Normalisation is exactly the problem. Readers are not encouraged to question the girl’s autonomy in any of this. We assume that because ‘all the boys’ find Miss Newham sexually attractive that she feels the same way in return.

An older character in a young person’s body was roundly criticised as creepy and predatory when Stephenie Meyer used the trope in her Twilight series. An old man (Edward Cullen) stalks seventeen-year-old Bella Swan. The creepiness was mitigated for other readers because we saw Bella’s point of view, and knew she found him sexually attractive. Therefore we knew there was consent.

Consent is off the page in this story. Yet Paul Jennings appears to have gotten away with the device. Mainly, he was writing in an earlier era. Also, the storyline of the 17-year-old girl in “Pink Bowtie” is secondary — almost a MacGuffin, or so we’re led to believe. The viewpoint character is the boy. We worry about the emotional safety of the boy, with no thought to that of the girl. In contrast, the character of Bella Swan is the viewpoint character of Twilight, so some readers do worry about her.


A dentist spins a tall tale for a boy who is nervous about getting a filling. The story is the origin story of the massive tooth used as signage outside the window. This story has a more successful twist at the end.

“One Shot Toothpaste” is written in third-person. It seems Jennings has a natural preference for writing in first person, unless there’s a storytelling reason for writing in third. The reason here is because at the end, the young viewpoint character is not in the picture, because another child turns up and the repeating pattern continues.

Having recently visited the dentist myself, an early detail struck me as wrong: After getting the numbing needle, you are not required to spit. But maybe you were required to spit in the 80s. I don’t remember. (Numbing needles are still huge. Not the needle itself, mind, but the receptacle on the end of it. A perennial source of terror.)

As in “Pink Bow Tie”, this story is a story within a story — the Level 0 story is the boy in the dentist’s chair. The Level 1, metadiegetic story is the dentist telling the boy about how he always wanted to be a dustman.

There’s a comic irony embedded in the MacGuffin of “One Shot Toothpaste” — a high prestige dentist longed for (and still admires) the lowest prestige job out there — cleaning up after other people, behind the scenes. (It’s a MacGuffin because this desire gives the young dentist a reason for looking through bins, but his desire abruptly changes when he realises there is animal cruelty going on.)


The main character of the Level Zero story is Antonio. His problem is revealed in the first sentence: He needs a filling, and he’s scared of the numbing needle.

His psychological shortcoming is that he is terrified, shown by the comical description of his knocking knees.

The main character of the Level 1 story is the dentist as a child. The dentist doesn’t have a problem but he has a mystery to solve. (The ‘problem’ is that he can’t rest until he finds out why his neighbour seems to go through so much toothpaste.) Because this is a tale told by an older man to a boy, this can be interpreted as a tall tale — the sort of story a dentist might spin to keep the boy’s mind off his fear. (It’s a masculine genre.)


The dentist wants to solve the mystery of Mr Monty’s toothpaste tubes.


Mr Monty is presented as the likely opponent. The young dentist is going to peer into his ramshackle house.

Sure enough, it is revealed that Mr Monty is holding animals captive, testing foul-tasting toothpaste out on them, hoping to come up with a recipe that will make his fortune. Mr Monty is a Eustace Bagge character (from Courage the Cowardly Dog.) He has no power in real life, and dreams of riches. Eustace Bagge sometimes comes up with outlandish schemes to this end. (They never work.)

A cursory look at the list of fictional characters named Monty confirms for me that this name has become associated with powerful but defeatable villains. Montgomery (Monty) Burns of The Simpsons springs first to mind.


So, we’re clearly given the opponent’s plan. (Jennings has him talk to himself, like a mad scientist type.)

The young dentist ambushes Mr Monty.


The Battle of the Level 0 story is the psychological big struggle as the boy gets his tooth filled, despite his own terror.

The Battle of the Level 1 story begins with section three, in which Mr Monty tries to capture the young dentist to try out his ‘one shot toothpaste’ on a boy. At the end of section three, the young dentist has ‘won’.

Section four is a comical description of a fantasy scene. The tooth grows and grows and overtakes Mr Monty, consuming him as it grows bigger. Mr Monty’s own invention has consumed him. This is a horror trope from way back.

Jennings is making use of another trick here, common to children’s stories in particular — he’s playing with our sense of scale. Children’s humour is augmented by making tiny things massive and massive things tiny. The image of a rotten tooth turning into the villain is in itself comical to a young audience. This is a comical image of irony: A meaningful gap between audience expectation  and outcome.

Expectation: A small tooth is small and needs looking after by its ‘owner’
Outcome: The tooth is actually the boss.

The wrapper story of a boy being at the dentist is therefore masterful on a psychological level, because when you’re at the dentist, enduring terror and perhaps pain, you realise, perhaps for the first time since your last visit, that your teeth are more important — more powerful — than you thought. For the first time, you’re centring your tooth in your own narrative.

A shift in psychic valence is another classic feature of horror. The ordinary becomes the terror.

Jennings ends the horror scene with a comical Rube Goldberg type device:

  1. Kangaroo tries to escape
  2. Knocks over candle
  3. Curtain catches alight
  4. House burns down


The final section (Chapter 5) of this story ends with a genuine, satisfying twist and it is achieved like this:

The dentist reveals that a massive tooth signage outside, advertising his business, is the real fusty tooth from his tall tale. Take note: This would not have worked if Jennings hadn’t mentioned its existence on the first page. But we weren’t meant to make special note of it.

How does Jennings make sure we don’t make special note of it? By diverting our attention to the comically symbolic name written on the side: M.T. Bin. We are busy sniggering that M.T. Bin is pronounced ‘Empty Bin’.

That revelation belongs to the Level 1 story.

But there’s a second revelation which belongs to the Level 0 story: This has indeed been a tall tale invented wholly to keep the child’s mind off his filling. In a circular ending common also to fantasy picture books, another, similar story begins again, this time with a little girl. The dentist tells her that he, too, always wanted to be a ballerina when he was a boy. He launches into a tale and we the reader can only imagine what that might be.


We extrapolate that the dentist spends all day spinning tall tales for his nervous patients.

But there’s always that little bit of doubt. Are any of them true? For all we know, the dentist wanted to be a dustman and then he also wanted to be a ballerina. This element of doubt is essential in providing that last ten percent of the frisson of delight in the twist ending.


A boy gets his grandfather out of a sanatorium by proving that he’s not imagining things — there really is a dragon down Donovan’s Drain.

This one is written in first person.


Chris misses his grandfather, who has been locked up in a sanatorium. Although this is a modern 1980s setting, I do remember these really old-fashioned (and hugely damaging) institutions for the mentally ill population were closing down around this time. The example from my own home town was Sunnyside Hospital (formerly Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum), which didn’t fully close down until 1999, but which was roundly criticised from at least the 1980s onwards.

So it’s easy to forget that these places did exist in the 1980s. These days, the existence of a sanitarium as described in the story feels like a throwback to the 1960s, at least.


Chris wants to help his grandfather vindicate his own sanity by taking photographic evidence of a dragon that the grandfather has seen in a drain. I have a theory that Paul Jennings had just read Stephen King’s IT when he wrote this story. (IT was published in September of 1986.) Either that or monsters down drains were in the collective air.


Normally in a story featuring a dragon, the dragon is the opponent. But in this story, the opponent is the authority figure at the sanatorium. Paul Jennings loves authority figures as opponents. Basically, he loves to exact revenge on characters who robotically do their jobs without letting their humanity shine through.


Chris visits the drain at midnight equipped with a flash camera (in those days cameras didn’t come with a flash — flashes were an add on, and I still remember the huge tower of little lights, which required a truckload of batteries to work), which was bigger by far than my father’s camera itself.

No word of a lie, it looked like this:

Kodak camera with flash


So Chris waits until midnight, because the dragon is only seen at midnight, and goes on this mythic journey into the underground. In more lofty stories, this journey into the underground would represent a journey into the main character’s psyche, symbolic of his deepest, darkest fears, but Jennings takes the structure of these serious stories and makes light of them. In fact, the journey itself feels like a necessary but not all that interesting sequence. (A young reader may differ.)

Jennings doesn’t linger down there — the anticlimax is that the dragon is asleep. Chris fails in his mission to collect photo evidence because of a calamity with the camera, but he does emerge from this fantasy world with a talisman — a red cube.


I have since looked up whether there is existing, well-known folklore about dragons and cube-shaped eggs, because the revelation is that Chris has come back to his grandfather with a dragon egg. (I wasn’t all that surprised — but I wasn’t supposed to be.)

Turns out the cube dragon egg is Jennings’ invention. He needed to invent his own folklore in order to surprise the reader with the revelation that he’s brought an egg back into the real world.


Because Jennings has given the reader an anticlimax with the dead dragon mum proving a non-opponent, now we have the real Battle scene, in which a dragon hatches and immediately attacks the horrible nurse keeping the grandfather prisoner.

This is a vengeful scene — wish fulfilment to exact punishment upon a nurse for refusing to believe something which — let’s face it — no properly skeptical reader would ever believe, either.


We extrapolate that with the nurse out of the way, granddad will return to his home as a free and sane man.

The truth of the setting has won out. The child hero has saved the day.


Gordon is scared by nothing, unlike his sissy sister. Until he comes face to face with a ghost who wants to pass his spooking exams by turning him inside out, like a sausage.


Gordon believes there’s nothing that can scare him. His fearlessness is established in opposition to the scaredy-cat nature of his sister, who wants to watch Love Story when Gordon wants to watch a slasher horror.

We know, therefore, that Gordon is going to come face-to-face with something really scary and get his comeuppance. Part of the pleasure of this tale is in waiting for that to happen.

The problem with this set-up is that it relies upon a system of misogyny, and unwittingly supports it. Gordon is our viewpoint character and he believes Love Story (ie. thinking, feeling, emoting stories) is girly, and because anything girly is inferior, he wants nothing to do with it.

Although Gordon’s bravado comes tumbling down, there’s nothing within the story itself to subvert the notion that girly = inferior. And that is the problem with stories like this.

There’s nothing 1980s about this, by the way. Middle grade authors (especially male authors) are still using girly as inferior to undercut their male main characters, while failing to dismantle the underlying misogyny.

I don’t think they even realise it’s there.


Gordon wants to watch a slasher movie.

When this proves impossible, he sets out into the world in search of something scary. Jennings doesn’t go out of his way to give Gordon a plausible motive. Rather, Gordon is the archetypal fairytale brother who sets out into the world ‘to seek his fortune’. He’s a lad in search of something, anything, to disrupt the utter monotony of his ordinary life. And the reader accepts that in a young man.

Note: Readers don’t tend to accept this motive in anyone other than a young man.

Ostensibly, Gordon leaves the house to teach Mary a lesson — she’ll be scared alone in the house without him, as the parents aren’t back until early the following morning.


Gordon’s initial opponent is his girly sister, who initially tries to persuade him against the slasher movie, then steals the video tape.

The central gag is that Gordon comes face to face with a variety of horror tropes, but doesn’t really draw a distinction between movies and reality, so he isn’t scared by any of these scary things. At this point I wonder how the gag will end. I think the only way this could possibly end is by showing Gordon to be scared of something run-of-the-mill — something ordinary kids would NOT be scared of. Anything other than irony would fail to finish it off… that I can see. Then again, Jennings might have advanced tricks.


Gordon’s subconscious plan is to run into something spooky.

But it’s the fake-opponent who has the more thought-out plan: To pass his spooking exams by scaring a boy half to death. Gordon  becomes the target in this comedy thriller. (But comedy thriller is a very hard genre mix, and I don’t consider this story one of Jennings’ best.)


The punk tries to scare Gordon by sprinkling pink powder on a sausage, then on a watermelon, before instructing them to explode.

Next he sprinkles the pink powder onto Gordon, and we worry he, too, is going to explode like a sausage. In the nick of time, the examiner ghost drops to the floor in fright, I assume at the prospect of seeing Gordon with his innards on the outside.

Gordon also faints too, and I wonder if he has turned into an exploded sausage. Honestly, I don’t really get this bit. Is he meant to be an exploded sausage ghost now?


Turns out I was right — Paul Jennings really had no choice but to end this story the way he did — by depicting Gordon as scared of things that aren’t scary. Gordon is revealed to find The Great Muppet Caper really ‘creepy’.

In any case, Gordon walked home with his knees knocking. After this experience he is finally scared of things now.


From now on he knows to be scared of certain things.


A boy wants money to take the designated Hot Girl at school out on a date. She has told him she’ll only go out with him if he takes her by taxi. His father won’t give him money, so he goes to the beach in search of The Mahogany Ship. If he finds this, he reasons, he can make lots of money. But at the beach, a stranger emerges from the shadows…


A boy is attracted to a girl who will only go out with him if he can afford to take her out by taxi.

He doesn’t have the money.

What he is wrong about in the beginning: He thinks as long as he has the money he’ll secure Tania as his girlfriend.


He desires the girl, or the status that the girl will bring.

To get the girl, he needs money.


The romantic opponent of the Level 0 story is Tania, described as an archetypal 1980s catch:

This wasn’t just any old date. This was a date with Tania. She was the best looking girl I had ever seen. She had long blonde hair, pearly teeth and a great figure. And she had class. Real class.

(White het men of Paul Jennings age overwhelmingly fetishise blonde women, having come of age in the Marilyn Monroe era.)

The boy narrator goes on to say:

She had already told me it was a taxi or nothing.

We don’t get to see Tania on the page, but my interpretation is that Tania does not want to go out with this boy. She wants to go out with Brad. Instead of risking backlash by turning him down flat, she has put the ridiculous condition of ‘only by taxi’ on her ‘yes’, knowing full well that he doesn’t have the money. Instead, he sees this as a challenge to overcome. The boy narrator sees it as a ‘yes’, because he hasn’t been told a direct and insistent ‘no’, and because he is not even listening for ‘no’.

This desire line is already creepy to me, then I notice something else.

Brad Bellamy is the guy Tania is really interested in, which is kind of prescient because Incels have since imbued their own meaning to the name ‘Brad’. A ‘Brad’ is a guy who supposedly gets all the attention from high status ‘Staceys’, while the low status men, involuntarily celibate, feel righteously aggrieved for missing out on sex they feel that they feel they are owed.

Why do they feel they are owed these ‘yes’s from Staceys, or Tanias? Because 1980s media told them that blonde girls with pearly teeth and great figures are their prize. I played a lot of arcade games on my Amstrad as a kid in the 1980s. The few times I clocked a game, it was a letdown to realise that the outro sequence often consisted of a pixellated but unmistakeable ‘Tania’ emerging from right of screen to plant a massive kiss on my — until this moment — genderless avatar. This phenomenon was critiqued brilliantly by Anita Sarkeesian back in 2013 in her Tropes vs. Women video series.


Paul Jennings gives his main characters weird plans. There’s nothing sane that really leads this boy from

  1. Need ten bucks to
  2. Will go in search of long lost treasure on the beach

But that is the wacko nature of Paul Jennings stories and we accept that happily. There is the in-between step, in which the boy offers to mow the lawn for payment, and a funny anecdote backstory about how he’s not allowed to do that anymore after mowing over a whole row of plants. (I find this supremely irritating as a parent—it probably mildly funny to its young, target audience.)

Anyway, that’s why the father won’t just give the boy ten dollars. That’s why he goes in search of The Mahogany Ship. Non-Australian readers won’t necessarily know that The Mahogany Ship is thought to be a shipwreck buried under the sand on a beach in South West Victoria. There was much talk about this in the 1980s and 1990s because two writers documented all the reports. This explains why there’s no explanation in the story itself.


Alongside this Level 0 story we’ve got the metadiegetic Level 1 story of the mysterious man on the beach who steps out of the shadows to tell a lengthy cautionary tale against trying to impress others by giving them money. The lesson is that the more you give, the more people take. And you can’t buy love anyway, no matter how much money you give someone.

This entire story has its own 7-step structure of course. The dog down the well reminds me of Silence of the Lambs, which was actually published 2 years AFTER this collection was copyrighted, so I guess people and little dogs in wells was in the collective narrative air.

The Battle of the story takes place within this metadiegetic story. In the end, the loyal little dog dies and teaches the busker narrator a lesson. It’s a real tearjerker—manipulatively so.


The plot reveal is that the busker is the star of the story. The misdirection (which probably works on a young audience) is that he was talking about himself in the third person.

The anagnorisis in the Level 1 story is that money doesn’t buy friends. Your friends simply are — as exemplified by the loyal little dog. As a message this doesn’t exactly work, because the little dog sacrificed all its own food and ultimately its own life to ‘buy’ the affection of the busker, but heigh ho.

As for the Level 0 story — the boy does not get the girl. He has his own epiphany prompted by the moral lesson: He does not even want a girl who requires an expensive mode of transport.  She is suddenly disgusting to him. I’m sure Paul Jennings considered this a subversion of the trope that boys who behave ‘well’ always get ‘the girl’.

But it’s not a feminist subversion at all. The idea that boys deserve pretty girls instead gets an addendum: boys deserve pretty girls who are also nice. (And presumably self-sacrificing. No accident that the busker’s dog is small and female. Bear in mind the default gender for fictional dogs is male.)

The epiphany our boy narrator should have had: He should leave Tania the fuck alone, because Tania wants nothing to do with him in the first place.


I stuffed the ten dollars into my pocket. Then I went round to Tania’s house and told her to go jump in the lake.

The reader is meant to feel some catharsis at this final sentence.

Here’s what remains in the story: The old chestnut that pretty girls tend to ask for too much from men who chase them. They use their high beauty status for monetary gain.

The boy still doesn’t realise that Tania was never interested in him in the first place. He literally went round to her house—her safe space—to insult her.


“Souperman” is set in the city — the natural arena for a superhero tale. Paul Jennings takes the classic super hero (the classical god) and strips him of power until he is a low mimetic human (according to Northrop Frye’s classification). Any boy can be Souperman, so long as he drinks the soup.


Robert is obsessed with Superman comics to the point where it’s affecting his school work. His angry father insists he dispose of all his Superman paraphernalia.


Robert wants to be a super hero.


His opponent is his father, who makes him get rid of all his Superman stuff. This makes him even less like a superhero than he was before.

He meets Souperman, who at first proves to be a fake-ally, teaching Robert how he, too, can have superpowers.


Robert does as Souperman suggests and eats ‘raw’ soup from a can (canned soup is never raw, but ‘raw’ does sound better in a tall story).


On the way back up from the skip he encounters ‘Souperman’ who tells him that if he eats certain flavours of canned soup he’ll be able to perform specific feats attached to the flavours. He tries out the theory and fails, but is left with the problem of indigestion.

Next he gets himself into a further scrape by falling into the council skip, which is then picked up by the rubbish truck. He’s about to be crushed.

The maybe-fake Souperman does save the day, by rushing downstairs to tell the rubbish truck driver to stop the crusher.


Souperman saves the day using only human abilities (he falls from the window rather than flying), and tells the driver to stop (rather than making it stop with superhuman strength). We conclude he’s just a guy playing at being a superhero.

But the plot twist is that Robert has inadvertenly taken off with the can opener, which means Souperman couldn’t eat the soup purported to imbue him with temporary superpowers. Souperman insists that he can fly, but only after eating soup.

In short: The twist ending is achieved by persuading the reader something fantasy is actually mundane, then adding extra detail to make us revise that view — that the mundane could still be fantasy.


The reader is left with an intriguing question — this Souperman guy could still be a real superhero.

Ergo: Any guy dressed in a superhero costume could, just possibly, be a real super hero.

This ending fits well inside a collection called Unbelievable.


A boy on a train knows that the other passengers are staring at his nose. He launches into backstory about how he got his nose stuck between two swinging doors. Now it is 7cm long. He can’t cope with the teasing at school so his parents send him on a country retreat.

Click Go The Shears is an Australian bush ballad. Unfortunately the most popular versions you’ll find on YouTube are by Rolf Harris, and Rolf Harris has since been found guilty of 12 counts of sexual assault. This was all going on in the 1980s, when this story was written. He abused children.

Here’s a version not by Rolf Harris

And here’s what a gum leaf tune sounds like, if you’re a pro:


The boy is left with a massive nose after an accident. His shortcoming is that he can’t lead a good life without fitting in, looks-wise.


He wants his regular nose back again. In the meantime, he wants to get out of school to avoid the bullying.


The kids at school are the narrator’s initial opponents, for making his regular life a misery.

Grandfather McFuddy at the farm is going to be either an opponent or an ally to his grandson. But the neighbour, Foxy, is quickly established as McFuddy’s ally.

Like Hatfields and McCoys, these two old men are at each other’s throats. The young narrator works out what’s going on without too much trouble. He summarises it for the reader:

This was the weirdest thing I had ever come across. These two old men seemed to be able to give each other their illnesses and cure themselves at the same time. By blowing a gumleaf where the other person could hear it.


The boy goes exploring around the farm. Children in fiction are obliged to explore any new environment. Coraline does the same thing. Incurious children don’t seem to exist in books.


The tree goes up in flames.

Neither of the old men, temporarily made friends through working together to fight the flames, realised the old twisted gum might be in danger. Though the reader has already deduced this, they realise the gum they’ve been weaponising is now a burnt and twisted corpse. Except for one leaf, which falls to the ground.

The boy transfers his long nose to the two old men, settling the rivalry between them by giving them both the same affliction, and also solving his own problem.


The old men have the revelation that once both of them are afflicted by the same thing, they are no longer automatic rivals.


The ranger on the train on the way home notes that gum trees tend to spring back to life after bush fire. This produces more leaves. The rivalry is likely to start up again. This sets up expectation of a repeating story.


Birdscrap has a strong gross-out element. 15-year-old twins Gemma and Tracy are at the beach. They end up covered in seagull crap. But why? This one’s a ghost story.

Consider this the kiddie version of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, later adapted for film by Hitchcock.

This is the story in the book starring girl(s). It feels tokenistic. I’m a little creeped out by the gendering of it, but in order to understand why, you have to know some context: In middle grade fiction it’s always ‘funnier’ when girls get covered in dirt, or crap. The girlier they are, the more satisfying it’s meant to be. Usually it’s revenge for being too girly, but includes an easily milkable slapstick comedy element. The characters in “Birdscrap” could easily have been boys — indeed, Jennings’ default character is boy. Jennings chose to cover girls in shit, for a reason. A completely subconscious reason, I’d wager.


“Birdscrap” is a Holy Grail type of quest to find hidden treasure, described only as ‘Dad’s rubies’. The problem is, they don’t know where to find them.


The twins want to find the rubies so they can ‘sell them for a lot of money, fix up Seagull Shack and give Grandma a bit of cash as well’. Because we’ve got two twin sisters talking to  each other, this is revealed in dialogue, as they argue about whether this is an idea worth pursuing.

In general, Holy Grail plots have something really specific the character wants — probably something they can hold in their hand. But deep down the outer desire is different e.g. to be accepted, to make a friend, to get past a break up.

But the hi-lo fiction of Paul Jennings doesn’t have that kind of complexity. The rubies don’t stand metaphorically for any deep desire. These girls are cardboard cut outs — they could be anyone. The interest factor for young readers derives from:

  • the gross-out spectacle of girls covered in poo, and a shack surrounded in poo
  • the intrigue of an invisible bird
  • the intrigue of a ghost who has come back for revenge
  • the reveals


An invisible seagull craps on the girls. Soon they’re bombarded, and absolutely covered in crap.


The girls take refuge in Seagull Shack. One of them checks the inside of the bird for the missing rubies.

They put the creepy stuffed seagull on the windowsill.


A ‘lonely darkness’ settles upon the shack and the night is one long psychological big struggle for the girls as the stuffed seagull stares at them from the windowsill where they released it back into the wild.

Once again, Jennings is making use of an exaggerated scene — most of us have the experience of being crapped on by a bird. This is that, taken to its extreme.

In the morning they realise the shack is surrounded by a huge volume of bird poo. No one knows they’re in the shack, so the twins consider themselves doomed.


They conclude the stuffed seagull is the body of the transparent seagull bombarding them, then plan to fix the problem by giving the ghost gull its body back.

The big reveal is that the eyes of the stuffed seagull are the rubies. It’s pretty unbelievable, on a narrative level, that the girls would rip the entire stuffing out of this bird and check it for rubies, yet wholly fail to notice that the creepy eyes staring at them all night are… rubies. This is the wrong kind of ‘Unbelievable’.

The ‘twist’ feeling in the end comes from the revelation that the bird is an ally opponent, not an outright villain. In its own way, the ghost seagull has ensured the girls would find the rubies. The ghost gull has a strong sense of reciprocity.


The girls are left with the rubies and henceforth they’re rich. They will probably do as they discussed: fix up the shack and live there together.

The ghost gull disappears (presumably forever) with its band of shitting marauders.


This is the only story in this collection which made me LOL. Remember milk deliveries? They stopped sometime in the 80s, so I doubt young readers would even know what that’s about.


A creature named Snookle arrives in the milk bottle. This creature wants to do everything for the child narrator, including picking his nose for him.


The narrator wants to continue doing things for himself, without being treated like a helpless baby.




The narrator tries to resist.


There’s a big struggle for control.

I went back to the kitchen for my breakfast. Snookle beat me to the spoon.


Off-the-page, the narrator realises that there are people in life who do need this kind of personal care. So he rehomes Snookle with the elderly woman next door, who can barely go outside to pick up her milk bottles.


The old lady now has someone to help her stay in her home. The lawns are mowed and she seems very happy. And the narrator is glad to be rid of Snookle.