Wynand Louw’s Mr Humperdinck books are magical, boyish hijinks with a good mix of tragedy and adventure, much like the Harry Potter books.
But that is where the comparison to the famous boy wizard ends.
So, it was with great intrigue that I found a quote describing the Table View author as “SA’s own JK Rowling”.
“Who said that?” I immediately wondered and pointedly asked the author when given the opportunity. “I have absolutely no idea,” he said. “It has been around since Mr Humperdinck’s Wonderful Whatsit won the MER prize for the best children’s book of 2005.”
Mr Louw said he suspects the quote is “a marketing thing” and he finds the comparison somewhat amusing.
“I haven’t sold a million books,” he said. “The JK Rowling thing would be really endearing if I had the billions that went with it.”
Mr Humperdinck’s Wonderful Whatsit was released in 2004 and now, 13 years later, the author has released a follow-up book: Mr Humperdinck’s Mysterious Manuscript.
What took him so long? “I am a doctor, and do not have much time for writing,” he said. “It takes a long time to write a book.”
Mr Louw is an ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon and writing is one of many activities he enjoys.
The Mr Humperdinck books were not planned as a series, he said, even though book two picks up shortly after book one ends. Each book was written so that it can be read as a story on its own.
“Pete’s story is complete. One of the most important rules of writing is this: ‘When you come to the end, then stop,’” he said.
Pete is the main character in the books and you would be forgiven for assuming that he would come secondary to Mr Humperdinck –after all that’s the name featured in the titles. But no, Pete is the main guy and Mr Humperdinck – spoiler alert – dies within the first few chapters. However, it is the title character’s magical inventions that glue the stories together.
“He’s like Gandalf. He doesn’t need to be there to influence the story. When I first started writing this book, I thought, ‘Can I really kill this guy whose name is in the title?’ And then I thought, ‘Yes, I can.’ Kids are not stupid and kids need to deal with bad stuff too. If you are small it doesn’t mean that bad stuff doesn’t happen to you, it does. So if you are writing for kids you should be writing about bad stuff too. People die and kids also have to deal with death.”
Despite the stories not sugar-coating harsh realities, the books are nevertheless fun fantasies with lots of quirky, off-beat humour; like Garbage – whom Mr Louw said is most readers’ favourite character – and Brick, a humorously dim-witted brick who, ironically, gets magically transformed into a genius after hitting against a head.
And yet, Mr Louw said, he found it difficult to write “funny”.
“What you think is funny, might not be funny to other people.”
The oddball humour, he said, is the influence of some of Mr Louw’s favourite writers, like Terry Pratchett (some of whose books are tucked in between medical journals in his office at Blaauwberg Hospital), Douglas Adams and Jack Vance. And he also enjoys reading children’s fantasy novels, like A Series of Unfortunate Events and, yes, even Harry Potter.
A great many South African children are enjoying reading Mr Louw’s books too – the books were only published locally – so much so that they have been added to the setwork syllabus.
“One of my daughter’s friends had read the book at school and when he walked into our house, he saw the framed cover art of the first book on the wall and exclaimed, ‘Did your dad write that book? That is so cool!’.”
Yet, Mr Louw says, he still has a “sense of wonder” when he meets someone who has read his books.
“Writing is a very personal thing, a very lonely thing. You lock yourself up in a room and sit in front of a computer and nobody knows what’s going on. Until you give it to a publisher and it’s published. That is actually quite good, to think that somebody else read what you wrote and liked it.”
Mr Humperdinck’s Mysterious Manuscript
Human and Rossouw
Review: Lauren O’Connor-May
Mr Humperdinck’s Mysterious Manuscript is a bit darker than its predecessor,
Mr Humperdinck’s Wonderful Whatsit, but it is still funny, if not funnier than the first book.
Novels that make me laugh are always favourites in my book because I can forgive a lot while giggling – bad writing, poor plotlines, weak character development all seem less important with a good dose of humour but thankfully these books feature none of those faults.
The writing in the books is very well put together and the plots are intricate enough to keep the story entertaining without becoming too convoluted or complicated.
The characters also undergo a lot of growth and have a realistic depth to them that make them endearing – the human ones at least and even a few of the magical ones.
The only character that bugged me a bit was Freddy, the best-friend boy genius.
Genius best friends seem to be a new children’s fantasy staple and it is starting to feel a bit overdone.
The books are also placeless – another modern novel gimmick that newer South African writers especially seem to like – with bits of the story feeling British or American but there was also a lot of South African flavour.