Philip Ardagh, , illus. by David Roberts. . Holt, $14.95 (128pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-6828-3

British author Ardagh launches the Eddie Dickens Trilogy with this tongue-in-cheek tale of a hapless youth. A group of cockamamy adults manufactures most of the humor while the hero plays straight man: 11-year-old Eddie is sent away by his ailing parents so that he will be spared their ill health. His mother calls him Jonathan ("for Jonathan was the pet name she called Eddie when she couldn't remember his real one"), and his father sends the boy packing with his (truly) Mad Uncle Jack. Most of the novel follows the boy, his uncle and his Mad Aunt Maud and her stuffed stoat, Malcolm (whom Jack calls Sally), as they travel via stagecoach to their home, Awful End (they never get there). "To break the journey, Mad Uncle Jack stopped at a coaching inn called The Coaching Inn." Here things take a turn, and when events land Eddie in St. Horrid's Home for Grateful Orphans, he gets to show his stuff. The omniscient narrator spoofs Charles Dickens's orphan tales with his offhand quips (when Eddie is suddenly thrust into the orphanage, the narrator remarks, "Perhaps we'll never find out how he ended up in this godforsaken place. Perhaps we'll find out in the next episode"). Roberts's hilarious pen-and-ink drawings of wide-eyed Eddie and his insane family resemble a cross between Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. Adult fans of Bleak House and Oliver Twist will appreciate Ardagh's clever crafting, and kids who lap up Lemony Snicket's series will take quickly to this tale and clamor for the next. Ages 9-up. (Sept.)