One of the enormous pleasures of childhood is getting away with doing dumb stuff.
If you’re caught, say, trying to teach the dog how to use a snorkel in the swimming pool, your average grown-up will go through a series of bodily conniptions (fist clenching, teeth gritting, eye rolling) but will generally write-off your behaviour as something that you’ll hopefully grow out of some day.
This is why I loved caper stories as a kid. It was like taking a correspondence course in advanced mischief.
A good caper is a pathway to rapid childhood self-improvement. Frustrated adults read self-help guides; contented kids read caper stories.
And while there are many fine capers being written today, there are some astonishingly good ones that kids may not be so familiar with. My nominations for the five best classic caper series of all time:
1. Just William
The gold standard against which all kids’ caper stories must be judged. Written by Richmal Crompton over a period of almost 50 years, the 39 books in the series chronicle the adventures of the perpetually 11-year-old William Brown and his band of friends, the Outlaws. Set in the village life of southern England, William and his best mate Ginger define a golden boyhood of trees to be climbed, cats to be harassed and windows to be broken in a testament to the privilege of youthful boredom.
2. The Three Investigators
Less of a romp than the William books, but still an engrossing diversion, The Three Investigators series was my introduction to the notion of book swapping. With 43 books to be read, it was inconceivable that any one child could afford to own them all, so an informal book collective formed among my friends, with kids making sure not to double-up with their purchases, and copies were freely swapped around. The series featured the adventures of boy detectives Jupiter Jones, Peter Crenshaw and Bob Andrews. They had a secret headquarters buried under a pile of scrap in a junkyard: what more could any kid want?
Yes, Paddington bear is for a slightly younger readership but no one can deny that Michael Bond’s marmalade-stained creation managed to get himself into all kinds of unintended scrapes. And anyone who argues against Paddington’s inclusion in a list of caper books will be on the receiving end of a most withering hard stare.
4. The Perishers
Actually a newspaper cartoon strip from the UK Daily Mirror, The Perishers was nevertheless a formative reading experience of my childhood. I first discovered them in anthology-form in the comics section of my local secondhand bookstore, which I would visit every day on the walk from the school bus-stop to home. The strip chronicled the lives of impoverished Wellington and his sheepdog Boot, dim-witted Marlon and his devoted friend Maisie, and Baby Grumpling with his teddy (Gladly, my cross-eyed bear). With clever wordplay and childhood antics totally devoid of parental supervision, it was a blueprint for life.
5. The Bottersnikes and the Gumbles
The ultimate Australian contribution and still the best children’s series set in this country, the Bottersnikes and the Gumbles by S.A. Wakefield should be compulsory reading in every school in the nation. The ongoing skirmish between the fun-loving Gumbles and the always-angry Bottersnikes is a treat to read and was way ahead of its time in its gentle reminder of the importance of looking after nature in the Australian bush. You’ll never look at a discarded jam tin in quite the same way.
(A note on The Famous Five: I never liked them. I found them to be snotty and reeking of do-gooder. All they ever seemed to do was crack smuggling rings that were run by non-specific ‘foreigners’. Why would a kid care about smugglers? What’s smuggling to a 10-year-old? Unless it involved sneaking a box of Lolly Gobble Bliss Bombs into the movies (bought from Woolies and not the cinema snack bar), I wasn’t interested.
Richard Newsome is a Brisbane communications consultant, and author of the best-selling Billionaire series of adventure books, the sixth and final instalment of which, The Curiosity Machine, is published by Text Publishing on 1 August. Visit Richard Newsome's website for more information about The Billionaire Series and his author events.