Thursday, May 07, 2015

Books that made me go "Hmmmm!"

Every now and then, I come across a book that leaves me gobsmacked in awe at the sheer ingenuity of its creators. You know what I mean, fellow book devourers, the kind of book that defies easy definition, cheekily flouts conventions about how proper books should behave, leaves weird ideas in your head,  keeps you up at night wondering if they were illustrated novels or picture books or.... but I digress.

Here are some ingenious books I have had the pleasure of meeting recently.

The Mysteries of Harris Burdick
Written and Illustrated by Chris Van Allsburgh
Publisher: Andersen Press
All Ages

This unusual picture book is really a collection of fourteen mysterious drawings, with cryptic captions attached. This is less a book than a puzzle, inviting you the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, create their own stories. Adding to the mystery is a teasing note the author prefaces the book with, explaining  how the drawings came into the possession of the publisher. Chris Van Allsburgh’s drawings, rendered entirely in pencil, are stunning – some are filled with smoky shadows, spooky lights, inky darkness, the promise of menace lurking in the background. (“He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late.”)  Yet others capture a moment of joy ( two children playing in water, a boy discovering a harp by a magical stream), parting, impending doom, adventure. My favourite picture - a nun in a chair hovering midair in a cathedral; the caption reads ‘The Seven Chair: The fifth one ended up in France.’  - leaving me wildly imagining the fate of the other six chairs and the people sitting in them.

My Secret War Diary, by Flossie Albright
Written and Illustrated by Marcia Williams
Publisher: Walker Books
Ages: 8+

Now here’s the kind of history book I wish I’d had growing up! Cleverly designed (or disguised) as a diary, it chronicles the life of little Flossie Albright through the tumultuous years of the Second World War. Through her meticulously handwritten diary entries, drawings, notes and photographs ‘pasted in’, we follow the daily trials and tribulations of being a young English girl on a farm, raising her baby brother while her father is away at war as a conscript in the British Army.  Flossie is a delight from the word go, brimming with fun, anger, anxiety.. and a propensity for using the word ‘Flipping’ a lot. The diary records the highs and lows of her life through the war, of course, but it is  also a cleverly told history of Britain in World War II, as experienced first- hand by Flossie, as she records bits of news, illustrates happenings, even draws little cartoons mocking Hitler. She tells us how, with the men away at war, the women take over farming and manufacturing work. Even children get pulled out of school to help with the harvest. Jewish refugees pour into the country, and are given refuge in homes like Flossie’s.  Rationing, bombing threats, blackouts all become part of the villagers’ lives – even their pots and pans are requisitioned by the government for aluminium. Birthdays come and go, loved ones lost, and Flossie finds her family – and her dreams – growing in ways she had never imagined. Friends and wellwishers begin to contribute to the diary as well, sometimes from as far away as Egypt.  What I loved most about this little girl was her humanity – she scolds and taunts the nasty ‘Huns’, and mocks the evil Hitler and Rommel, but she is also capable of feeling genuine sympathy for the innocent civilian victims of the war in Germany and Japan.  Exuberant and touching by turn, bristling with fold-out notes and letters, bursting with detail – this is a book it is impossible to do justice to with a single reading! An interesting detail I discovered, after reading the book - it is actually a sequel to ‘Archie’s War’, 'written' by Flossie’s father Archie Albright as an East London boy during the First World War. 

Letters from a Lost Uncle
Written and Illustrated by Mervyn Peake
Publisher: Methuen Fiction
Ages: 10+

First published in 1948, Letters…. is designed to look like a journal, with yellowing typewritten notes pasted in over pencil illustrations, meant for a nephew their writer has never seen. We never learn the uncle’s name (or  find out what happens to him after the last letter), but discover, through his letters, that he is an explorer living out in an igloo somewhere in the North pole with a strange bipedal, beaked creature called Jackson for company. Oh, and he is fat, bearded, wears a bowler hat and has a spike in place of a leg. The letters recount the uncle’s youth growing up in London, beforehe decides to give up everything and sail away in search of adventure, a la Peter Pan . At home in the Arctic in a way he never was in England, the uncle then  chronicles his adventures, hunting expeditions - and occasional rants against his man Friday, Jackson- as he searches for the mythical White Lion.  The book is both funny and touching, and I loved the little touches that make it so authentic - coffee, ink and bloodstains mark the odd page, corrections and additions  penciled in, some drawings moodily inked over. 

Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes
Written by Margaret Atwood
Illustrated by Duลกan Petricic
Bloomsbury Paperbacks
Ages: 6+

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors, but even I would never have associated the writer of such grim, dystopic novels as 'The Handmaid's Tale' and 'Oryx and Crake' with this laugh-out-loud literary romp that absolutely demands to be read out loud. The plot of the book is simple enough; what makes it unique is the language - Atwood  makes it a celebration of the letter 'R'. So our hero, Ramsay, turns out to be red-headed and living in a ramshackle residence, with a bunch of revolting, roly-poly relatives with names like Rollo, Ron and Ruby. Chased out of his home, he meets a friendly rat called Ralph, discovers a field of unusual radishes, and finally finds a friend - all this, of couse, in wonderfully alliterative prose. Dusan Petricic's moody pencil and water colour illustrations had me poring over this book for hours.

Meerkat Mail
Written and Illustrated by Emily Gravett
 Publisher: Pan Macmillan Children's Books
Ages: 3+

Now, pretty much any book by Emily Gravett is a visual treat guaranteed to suprise and delight , and this one is no exception. It follows one week in the life of Sunny, a meerkat who feels so claustrophobic at home in the hot Kalahari desert that he sets out visiting his cousins across the world. Only, he never quite feels at home, does he? And meanwhile, whose is that menacing shadow stalking him through his travels? 

The story is told to us through beautiful full-page illustrations and the lift-the-flap postcards our intrepid traveler sends back home, and his increasingly beleagured expression tells us all we need to know about his experiences. Packed with visual jokes, the book is at once a lesson in geography, biology and a sweet reminder that often, the best thing about a journey is coming back home.

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