Sunday, November 21, 2010

Arabel and Mortimer

Arabel's Raven (Arabel and Mortimer) Arabel and Mortimer

Most chapter books for young girls are dross. They are churned off a production line, following a set formula and featuring fairies, or magic ponies or kittens. The asinine heroines become ecstatic over clothes and sparkles; they have a minor adventure which reconciles them with a jealous peer; and at the end, everyone's wearing pink. All in all, these books make me sick. Excuse me while I go puke in the corner.

But there are antidotes to this nauseating drivel. One of our favourites are the Arabel and Mortimer stories by Joan Aiken. Arabel is four and lives in Rumbury Town, an ancient suburb of London. One day, Arabel's father, a taxi driver, finds a bedraggled black bird in the road. He brings the bird home to be nursed; Arabel falls in love, and christens the raven Mortimer.

Mortimer is no end of trouble. Like all ravens, he's endlessly inquisitive and perpetually destructive. He's forever slipping away for a quiet bit of investigation, which usually involves his strong beak and some expensive piece of equipment. In Mortimer and the Sword Excalibur (found in Arabel and Mortimer, and also published separately), Mortimer wreaks havoc on Arabel's mother's sewing machine and the vile pink dress she is making for Arabel, then hurls a banana across the room where it is messily impaled on the bristles of a broom. Arabel and Mortimer are sent out of the house in disgrace to play at the park across the road, where they meet up with Arabel's friends: Sandy, a unicycle-riding teenage boy, and Mr Walpole, the groundsman. While they chat, Mortimer seizes the opportunity to hijack the council ride-on mower and terrorise the other park goers, mow swathes out of the daffodil beds, and send the mower plunging into a building excavation site.

At the bottom of the pit lies a mysterious round stone table. The mower smashes it to smithereens. Mortimer flutters out carrying a priceless ancient sword which had been stuck in the table... and then manages to destroy it also, to the shock and distress of the investigating scholar and the curious crowd. Adults will enjoy the mythical allusions; children will relish the destructive chaos.

In other stories, Mortimer shuts down the London Underground, destroys a radio tower, and generally drives everyone except Arabel mad. The stories are wildly inventive, and, to children at least, laugh-out-loud fun. Mortimer is fascinating; and Arabel is absolutely charming. She is a quiet bookish child who loves to skateboard, and gets into all sorts of scrapes thanks to him.

The books are also enjoyable for adults coopted into reading aloud. In The Mystery of Mr Jones's Disappearing Taxi, now sadly out of print, books featured include the Complete Oxford Dictionary, Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Mrs Beeton's Household Management; Freud and Cosi Fan Tutti also rate a mention. In a nice allusion to Poe's Raven, except for 'Kaark' the only word Mortimer says is 'Nevermore'.

Aiken fills her text with puns and spoonerisms, which some children get and others may glide over. An adult reading aloud may choose to stop and elucidate, or may choose simply to read with no interruptions. All the stories – and there are about fifteen of them – are rippers and can be read on several levels.

Although Aiken writes for children, she is not afraid to use metaphors and other sophisticated techniques to tell her story. The result is a text which is not only very lively and great fun, but paves the way to other writers; a four to ten year old child reading Joan Aiken and the like won't be afraid to tackle other playful intelligent writers – say Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens – in later years.

And from books like these, real books written not for a corporate production line but because a story burned to be told, our children will be equipped for the big questions, and the mingled sorrows and joys of adulthood. Kaark.

PS The first book is Arabel's Raven.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

An Advent List (reprise)

The Happy Prince: From the Fairy Tale by Oscar Wilde Now One Foot, Now the Other Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten Nail Soup The Mousehole Cat The Nativity Wombat Divine
Last year I wrote an Advent list: the books my family will especially enjoy during December. In case you missed it, here it is again!

I love a good list. Elsewhere, I commented on developing rituals for Christmas; and I'm thinking that they will include a lot of good stories. So what follows is a dozen stories that my family will read aloud between December 1 and 24. Most of them are not Christmassy per se. Instead, they are about hope, joy, bravery, generosity, vocation, sacrifice, community, and love.

'The Singing Bus Queue' (Margaret Mahy, in The Chewing-gum Rescue and Other Stories (London: JM Dent, 1982)) sings rain or shine in seven-part harmony. No matter how hard the town grumps try to silence them, they continue to warble joyfully. Eventually, they are imprisoned for creating a public disturbance - yet even there they sing so sweetly, in such high and pure tones that the prison crumbles. They walk out through the ruins to sing through the night with the moon and stars.

Continuing the singing theme, in 'Four Angels to my Bed' (Joan Aiken, in Past Eight O'Clock: Goodnight Stories (London: Puffin, 1990)) Little John sees four angels carved on wooden bedposts. As he falls asleep, the angels sing him a fugue, and he joins his voice in a new tune that dances with, through and around the heavenly music. Downstairs, his mother smiles at the sound of her little John Sebastian singing as she realises he has discovered his calling.

'Brother Ninian's Blot' is also about calling (Robin Klein, in Ratbags and Rascals (Ferntree Gully, Victoria: Houghton Mifflin Australia, 1989)). Brother Ninian, a messy medieval copyist, spills ink across a nearly completed piece of parchment. In his horror, he tries to disguise the blot with doodles of leaves, flowers, birds, butterflies, and even a jolly abbot. He becomes completely absorbed, and in his absorption creates something wonderful, beautiful and entirely new: the illustrated manuscript.

The illustrated manuscript recalls Jane Ray's lavish illustrations in The Happy Prince: From the Fairy Tale by Oscar Wilde (London: Orchard, 1994). She retells Oscar Wilde's fairy tale in which the statue of a prince gives all it has to the city's poor - its ruby eyes, its gold leaf - via an obliging swallow.

On the theme of gifts, in 'The Gift Giving' (Joan Aiken, in Up the Chimney Down and Other Stories (New York: Harper & Row, 1984)) a blind grandmother can, with the help of a special tune played by her adult son, Mark, see and describe gifts and vistas in rich language. When Mark dies, the gift fades until Mark's nephew and namesake and Mark's daughter together make a new pipe and work out the tune that recalls Grandmother's gift.

Tomie dePaola has also written about gift giving between young and old. In Now One Foot, Now the Other (New York: Puffin, 2005), Bob teaches his grandson to stack blocks, tell stories and walk. When Bob has a stroke, it is the little boy who patiently teaches his grandfather to stack blocks, tell stories and walk again, using the same loving words his grandfather once used with him.

In a similar vein, Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge lives next door to an old people’s home. He is particular friends with Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper, who has four names, just like him. Miss Nancy has lost her memory, and Wilfrid Gordon sets out to find it for her (Mem Fox and Julie Vivas (Gosford, NSW: Scholastic, 1984)).

Thinking about neighbours recalls Rose Meets Mr.Wintergarten (Bob Graham (London: Walker Books, 1992)). In this lovely book, a young girl moves into a new neighbourhood. When she loses her ball over the fence, her openness and fairy cakes disarm the miserly neighbour who has terrified the area’s children for decades.

Other misers are persuaded to share in Nail Soup (Eric Maddern and Paul Hess, (London: Frances Lincoln, 2007). A traveller, denied all but the meanest of shelter and sustenance, convinces his host that he will make soup out of a nail. As the 'soup' bubbles away, the host is gradually persuaded to add ingredients that turn it into a generous meal they can eat together.

The Mousehole Cat is also about sharing food. When a Cornish fishing villages faces starvation, Old Tom and his cat Mowser brave the winter storms to catch fish for the town. On their safe return, the town celebrates with a feast of morgy-broth and stargazy pie (Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley (Aladdin, 1996)).

One of the most lively renditions of the Christmas story is by Julie Vivas (The Nativity (Gosford, NSW: Scholastic, 1986)). She illustrates the story in her singular style: the angel Gabriel is a ragged punk and shares a cuppa with Mary; we see the newborn baby, hands outstretched, still attached to the umbilical cord; the shepherds loom, peering into the cot; and in the final scene, Mary pegs out nappies. In Vivas's interpretation, the Christmas story is not a far-off super-spiritual event, but something immediate, physical, real, that happens even now. I particularly love that Mary is enormously pregnant, pendulous breasts and all, rather than resembling some medieval nymph.

Finally, what would an Australian Christmas be without a reading of Wombat Divine (Mem Fox and Kerry Argent (Scholastic, 2009))? Wombat desperately wants to be in the Christmas play, but he is too short, too clumsy, and too heavy for any of the parts. But Emu finds him the perfect role, and Wombat is, quite simply, divine.

As are all these stories. Read, prepare, enjoy.

PS For out of print books, try here.