The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones

I saw last weekend that Cressida Cowell in her column on books for children in the Telegraph was recommending this book, and quite rightly so. It has humour, problematic magic, very believable children, and a really very lovely ending.

In a step family where two sets of siblings are locked in fierce rivalry, each is given, by the ‘ogre’ of the title (actually the stepfather), a chemistry set. But the chemicals turn out to be magic, with riotous results. Among other things, the house is flooded and covered in toffee, the children swap bodies and get stuck on the roof trying to fly, and as the story progresses the rivals grow closer together as they try to keep the magic a secret from the ogre.

I wish chemistry had been like this when I did it at school. How much more fun it would have been to animate the dolls’ house people and swap bodies with different classmates. The children’s approach is rather random, and they arrive at their results somewhat unscientifically by either spilling the chemicals, mixing them wrongly or splashing them on themselves. This just makes the ensuing chaos more enjoyable.

Diana Wynne Jones writes brilliantly about how children feel and talk and behave. The fits of silliness, the sense of fairness and the way they muddle through mishap after mishap is exactly the way you feel you would have reacted when you were that age. Her descriptions of the pigsty bedrooms are very reminiscent of both my childhood bedroom and my child’s bedroom, where you have to wade through an encroaching sea of clutter to get to anything, and where with every step comes the sharply painful possibility of treading on a Lego brick . . .