Divorce is tough for any kid. But while Violet's ex-secret service mum and retired bad-guy dad are distracted by each other, the real super-villains are having a field day. To save her family - and the planet - from evil domination, Vi must turn spy ...
Reviewed by Nikki Gamble
Vi Spy: License to Chill is the first book in a hilarious new series from top comedy writer Maz Evans.
In this first instalment, we are introduced to our young protagonist, Valentine Day (the eponymous Vi) and her spy relatives, Mum, Easter Day (prefers to be known as Susan, and forthright granny Independence Day (Indy for short). I’ll admit to name envy here – who wouldn’t want to be called Independence Day? Vi’s Dad is not on the scene, allegedly killed on a spy mission. Mum is about to be married to Vi’s teacher Mr Sprout and acquire a new stepbrother called… Russell … of course (say it out loud). Easter (Susan) has left the spying world behind to bring up her daughter. But it seems the spying world won’t let her go. And what’s more daughter Vi yearns to go to Rimmington Hall spy school. There are further surprises when it’s revealed that Vi’s Dad isn’t dead and he wasn’t a spy either. No, Sir Charge, is, in fact… a master villain.
Phew! That’s just for starters. The story involves a plot to foil super villain Umbra from controlling the neurotrol – a device that makes adults do whatever the operator wants. Dangerous stuff indeed, especially when activated at the PTA disco with Everybody Was Kung Fu dancing blasting out of the speakers, Well, you get the picture. Will Vi foil the plan? Will Mum marry Mr Sprout? Will Dad prove that he has changed his villain’s spots? I don’t want to be accused of being a plot spoiler, so sorry you’ll have to find that out for yourself.
In a letter at the front of the book, publisher Barry Cunnigham writes, ‘There are some writers who are naturally funny. Others can write thrilling plots with lots of crazy inventions and seat-of-your-pants escapes. I even know authors that can make you cry at the serious bits. Maz Evans does it all.’ Well, it’s true. It’s easy to dismiss funny books as light and trivial. They appear to be written with ease because comedy must appear to flow effortlessly from the pen or keyboard. But this belies the craft of writing humour: the perfect timing, exercising restraint or going for full-on slapstick for the best effect. Furthermore, the terms ‘humour’, ‘funny’ and ‘comedy’ encompass a diverse range of tone, mood and technique. It will be evident from the introduction to this review that Maz is the mistress of wordplay and pun. Look more closely and you’ll see how comedy is employed in different ways and elicits different responses. Much of the humour in this Vi Spy makes the child protagonist (and by extension the reader) appear superior to the bumbling adults, that’s common in children’s fiction, If you are old enough to have been a fan of the Beano you’ll recall how the Bash Street Kids always ‘got one over’ on the easily duped teacher. This appeal to superiority allows children to feel empowered while they inhabit the world of the book. Humour is also used to make static scenes dynamic and fast-moving. In one instance an expository catch-up conversation between Vi and her Dad in Guiseppe’s restaurant (supposedly the safest place for villains to hangout) is brought to life using physical humour and dramatic irony. While Dad is oblivious, Vi notices bistro owner Guiseppe keeping assassins at bay, snuffing out lighted sticks of dynamite perfectly placed in ice cream sundaes and demonstrating his ninja moves while continuing to serve his customers. All Dad notes is that it’s taking a long time for the coffee to arrive. It’s a brilliant scene that would not be out of place in a Pink Panther movie, with the unsuspecting Closseau characteristically missing the important clues.
However, Maz also covers topics which to children are very serious. How do you navigate life when your parents are no longer together and seem to have forgotten that you are meant to be the most important consideration? Underneath the humour, there are important messages which show children that when circumstances seem to be at their worst, they will usually get better. And in most cases, parents do not stop loving their children when they no longer want to live with each other. Dealing with sensitive issues in a madcap story, without diminishing their importance, is a skill. So it’s a thumbs up for Vi Spy from me.
Formerly a teacher (secondary and primary) and university lecturer, with over 35 years’ experience, Nikki has worked extensively in schools across the UK and internationally. She is the author of Exploring Children’s Literature now in its fourth edition (Sage, 2019) Co-author of Guiding Readers, winner of the UKLA Academic Book award (UCL, 2016). Nikki runs workshops for teachers, librarians, students and researchers on different aspects of children's literature, an online summer school and an Audience with events, celebrating writers and illustrators who have made an exceptional contribution to the world of children's books. Further information exploringchildrensliterature.uk