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Kaye Umansky (1946-) - Sidelights

pongwiffy review chair witch

A music teacher and actress, Kaye Umansky is also a popular author who has channeled her creativity and quirky humor into a long list of books for younger readers. Her creation of the unkempt witch Pongwiffy, who made her introduction to readers in 1988's Pongwiffy: The Witch of Dirty Habits, has made Umansky well known in both her native Great Britain as well as Australia, while her plays, riddle books, and other humor-filled works have gained her a large following. Reviewing Umansky's picture book A Chair for Baby Bear a sequel to the story of Goldilocks and the three bears in which the young cub goes shopping for a new chair, School Library Journal, Catherine Callegari described the author's "lighhearted" story as "just right for . . . one-on-one sharing." Youngsters who were left with questions by the traditional tale will find that the "British team" of Umansky and illustrator Chris Fisher does "a nifty job of tying up the loose ends," according to a Publishers Weekly contributor.

Born in Devon, England, in 1946, Umansky started her writing career in the mid-1980s, after she left teaching to stay home and raise her just-about-to-be-born daughter. "I always thought authors must be special people—not ordinary, like me," she explained on the Penguin UK Web site. "In fact, there is no magic to it you just need to enjoy it and be prepared to work hard." Her advice to beginning writers includes keeping a paper and pencil handy to write down ideas, as well as her number-one suggestion: "Read, read and read again. It is by reading that you learn how to become a good writer."

Since her introduction, the witch called Pongwiffy has reappeared in several books by Umansky, and has proved so popular with British readers that the "Pongwiffy" books have been adapted for television dramatizations. In Pongwiffy and the Spell of the Year the witch is keen to enter a local Spell of the Year contest, and when she locates a highly touted recipe by spellmeister Granny Malodour, Pongwiffy assumes that the win will be hers. However a search for the necessary ingredients—the spell includes wild cat whiskers, quicksand, a vulture's feather, and the hair of a princess, cut during a full moon to ensure maximum potency—proves problematic. Pongwiffy and the Pantomime finds the resilient sorceress penning a play for members of her local coven to perform. However, in typical Umansky fashion, things quickly degenerate into humorous chaos.

As in the "Pongwiffy" books, Umansky enjoys creating stories that feature supernatural and ghostly elements, and she makes scary characters comical—and far less scary!—in the process. In Goblinz, for example, a lone goblin named Shy has aspirations of being part of a gaggle. Unfortunately, coming up with the six other members to make the seven goblins required for official gaggle status is hard when you don't have any friends. Fortunately, once Shy decides to take action Tuf, Wheels, and Oggy soon sign up for his group, forming the core of the Goblinz.

Having assembled her cast of quirky ghouls, Umansky continues their story in Goblinz: Detectives, Inc., which finds the gaggle all outfitted in super-spy gear and ready to go sleuthing, and Goblinz and the Witch, in which the gruesome gang hit a rough spot with a local witch when they attempt to take their new go-cart for a trial run down Gaspup Hill. Umansky balances such fantastic fictions with more down-to-earth stories, such as The Carnival and Sophie and the Wonderful Picture, the last which finds a frog and rabbit attempting to create Kay Umansky brings her wacky sense of humor to bear in A Chair for Baby Bear, an off-beat tale that focuses on the Three Bears as they set about to repair the chair destroyed by the ungainly Goldilocks. (Illustration by Chris Fisher.) an impressive work of art for presentation at their school. In School Arts Ken Marantz predicted that beginning readers will get a "smiling boost" from Sophie and the Wonderful Picture, and praised the book's "light-hearted illustrations" by Anna Currey.

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Publishers Weekly, July 5, 1999, review of Tickle My Nose and Other Action Rhymes, p. 73; November 15, 2004, review of A Chair for Baby Bear, p. 58.

School Arts, October, 2004, Ken Marantz, review of Sophie and the Wonderful Picture, p. 66.

School Library Journal, August, 2002, Ronni Krasnow, review of Sleeping Beauty, p. 179; February, 2003, Lynne K. Vanca, review of Donkey Ride to Disaster (audiobook), p. 74; February, 2005, Catherine Callegari, review of A Chair for Baby Bear, p. 110.

ONLINE

Penguin UK Web site, http://www.penguin.co.uk/ (March 14, 2005), "Kaye Umansky."

Story Street Web site, http://www.storystreet.co.uk/ (March 14, 2005), "Kaye Umansky."

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