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.

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