Ferg Gottin could have been a Dimwit, a Lowlife, or a Nincompoop, but he’s not—he’s a Scumbag. But really, Ferg isn’t actually any of these things. These are the names of the houses to which the children of Horrid High are assigned, and they should give you every indication of just how horrid Horrid High really is.

Despite its name and setting, Horrid High is an utterly delightful book about a boarding school for orphaned and unwanted children. Ferg is one of those children, born to parents who are so self-absorbed that they often forget he exists and most certainly wish he didn’t.

The Gottins are tired of having to bother with Ferg, so they send him to Horrid High where the teachers are horrid, the food is horrid, and some of the students are horrid, too. But Ferg finds an unlikely band of friends in locksmith Phil Fingersmith, pickpocket Fermina Filch, hypnotist Mesmer Martin, and mimic Imana “Immy” Tate, who make his days at the school just a little bearable.

Just a little, though. Ferg decides to run away in the dead of night and stumbles upon a secret that no one else knows. Horrid High is not just a school for unwanted children; it’s also a place where Principal Perverse trains the most horrid teachers and sends them out into the world to spread their horridness. It’s up to Ferg and his friends to stop him.

Horrid High is a funny, witty, and charming story for kids and parents alike. Adults require some suspension of disbelief to make it through the twists and turns, but kids age 10 and above are likely to love this world, where everything and everyone competes to be the most horrid. It takes skill and a vivid imagination to come up with 300 pages of horridness that keep readers wanting more, and author Payal Kapadia has both. Her descriptions are expressive and disgusting at the same time – pizzas topped with maggots and ice cream with crows’ feathers are just some of the things that make up the students’ lunches.

In the real world, it’s in times of hardship and adversity that a person’s true character is revealed, and this holds true for the fictional realm of Horrid High as well. Kapadia set out to write a book full of all things dreadful and horrid, and in the process created a beautiful children’s story about friendship and courage borne out of dreadful, shared experience. Ferg and his friends are at Horrid High because they’re unwanted, but rather than let that break them, they each use their strengths to survive alone and thrive together.

There are also a few older, benevolent characters in the book that are a welcome relief from the horridness that abounds. Through the actions of the children and these few, kind souls, the book also reinforces the belief that there is good in this world and that the future will never be bleak when good people persevere.

Daily life at Horrid High is quite forlorn, but the children’s antics and the book’s lighthearted tone make the story enjoyable, rather than frightening. It’s best suited for preteens with a strong stomach; Chef Greta Gross’s adventurous and inedible meals are not for the faint-hearted.

If there’s one flaw in the book, it’s that every time a new character is introduced the story takes a backseat to his or her history. With so many colourful characters at Horrid High, the narrative is a bit choppy, with frequent breaks to explain a character’s past and how he or she ended up there. It’s a minor gripe though, because their backstories are imaginative, descriptive, and well written—which can also be said about the book itself. There appears to be a sequel in the works, and I, for one, can’t wait to read it.

– Shivani Shah
March 25, 2015