Spud: Learning to Fly is the third novel in John van de Ruit’s series about sixteen-year-old Spud Milton, detailing the time that he attends school in South Africa in the 1990s. This series of books is one of my favorites, and it is really similar to Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, but maybe directed at a more male adolescent audience instead of Rennison’s female one. Both use a journalistic style to document life at school, home, and in between, and the authors’ humor is probably the most notable and remarked on aspect of both series. Rennison’s series spans ten novels, and van de Ruit’s is at three, but promises four, and they’re an interesting complement to one another.
The newest novel sees Spud continuing in his artistic endeavors, finally sharing with his family and friends his ambitions to be an actor. The highlight of one of the previous novels was probably the narration of Oliver! the play put on at Spud’s school. Spud manages to play the titular character and the event is one of the funniest, and enlightening for Spud (in another production at the school, Spud’s friend and dorm-mate, Fatty, is cast as an anchor). However, alongside the humor is the political and cultural reality of South Africa in the 1990s, and Spud particularly notes apartheid, Nelson Mandela, and national referendums. This South Africa setting for a young adult novel is incredibly effective.
In these novels the boys don’t go by their real names (actually, when they are called on by their real names by some teachers or parents or in official school news, they are rendered almost unrecognizable to a reader who has come to know the characters as Rain Man, Fatty, Rambo, Meg Ryan’s Son, Plump Graham, and Mad Dog, and the teachers as The Glock, The Guv, and Viking). When a new member joins Spud’s house, he is nicknamed “Stutterheim” because of his obvious stutter. Spud remarks:
“Why do parents think they can just send a boy with obvious problems to a school like this? What do they expect – that he’s going to thrive? Mind you, nobody ever gave Vern much of a chance at survival, and he’s made the school play and is now whispered in some quarters as a potential prefect!”
The highlight of this newest novel is a staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and, interestingly, Rennison’s novels also highlight the staging of plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth). The cast from Spud’s all-boy school travels to Wrexham, an all-girls school that supplies the female members of the cast. Spud, the cast, and two teacher chaperones, stay for several weeks and are guided around the campus by two thirteen-year olds, Penny and Brenda. Spud’s English teacher, The Guv, seems to fare the worst from the temporary relocation as Spud notes, “We came across The Guv who was stalking around in a tweed suit and looking disturbed. He admitted to being completely lost and very near suicide.”
This book continues in the same vein of the previous two, and takes the reader further into Spud’s life at school and at home (where his psychotic dog Blacky is consistently terrorized by his father). Spud: Learning to Fly is hilarious while also keeping Spud’s journey through adolescence at its center, and I’m glad there’s still one more novel on the way to keep his story going.