Wishful Thinking - book reviews

January 17

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It must be the prevailing grey and gloom outside as I write but most of the books I’ve chosen for this issue of Salad Days are bright, warm and sunny. There are quite a few beaches. Ah, roll on summer…

My first choice, Harry by the Sea by Gene Zion, illustrated by Margaret Bloy Graham, is pure nostalgia. First published in the 1960s, Harry the Dirty Dog was one of my childhood favourites, but I’ve only just come across this one about Harry at the seaside, being mistaken for a Bushy-Backed Sea Slug and not being able to find his family’s striped beach umbrella among hundreds of other on the beach. With what are now ‘retro’ illustrations, chalked or crayoned in a limited palette, the ‘Harry’ stories are a jaunty delight.

On another beach there’s The Boy Who Unplugged the Sea by Paul Brown, illustrated by Chris Capstick. Little Marcel is fed up with the sea washing away his fantastic sandcastles. The resourceful boy develops a submersible using a Thermos flask and egg whisks and travels to the bottom of the sea to pull out the plug. Of course, his action is disastrous for sea life and he must find the tap to refill the sea. There’s an obvious message about the consequences for the environment of self-centred actions but it is gently made as this is really a jolly, bright, and sunny adventure. The sandcastles are fabulous.

My third beach comes in a lovely lyrical story about a lonely little boy called Noi, who finds a young whale washed up on his beach. The Storm Whale by Benji Davies is another gorgeous picture book with soft retro-style illustrations. The spare text has both humour and pathos: I love what is unsaid on the page which, while showing Noi watching anxiously at the window as his father returns from a fishing trip, says, “Noi was worried that his dad would be angry about having a whale in the bath”. And the double page spread on which Noi and his father return the whale to the sea is exquisitely tender. This is a gentle and heart-warming treat.

The last beach-themed book is another classic but you may have missed it. I include it because it is too good to miss. Quentin Blake’s The Green Ship is another poignant story which reminds you that adults are just as capable of (and in need of) imaginative play as children. 

During their summer holidays, two children stumble on a garden in which they discover a topiary ship. They are challenged as stowaways by Mrs Tredegar, the garden’s owner, who preserves the ship with her Bosun/gardener. The ‘sailing’ adventure and a special friendship begin. It gradually becomes clear that this ship was made (or is maintained) in memory of Mrs Tredegar’s late husband, ‘The Captain’ – and that, as Mrs Tredegar and the Bosun age over the years, so the condition of the ship deteriorates. “We still go back to see Mrs Tredegar every year. The Bosun says that he’s getting too stiff to climb up and trim the masts and the funnels; and that Mrs Tredegar doesn’t seem to mind.” We, the readers, mind hugely. I think this is Quentin Blake at his best – better even, dare I say it, than Mrs Armitage, Breakspear, and the bicycle.

I Yam a Donkey by Cece Bell is a complete change of topic but the absurdity of its wordplay is irresistible. It deals hilariously with the complication of trying to correct bad grammar. A yam tries to explain the use of the verb ‘to be’ to a donkey. It begins with the yam’s first attempt at correction, “What did you say? ‘I Yam a donkey’? The proper way to say that is ‘I am a donkey!’.

You is a donkey too? You is a funny-looking donkey!” counters the donkey. And so it goes on, concluding with a stern and subversive moral about the relative importance of correct grammar in certain circumstances. Very young children may not understand the grammatical jokes – but you will – and you’ll love it.

Two Christmas books I missed (as always) – buy them now ready for December. One is a lovely bright and colourful Walking in a Winter Wonderland based on the Peggy Lee song, illustrated by Tim Hopgood, complete with CD. Maybe by now you need 10 months before you hear that song again but it is lovely to read the words. This is in the same series as the version of ‘What a Wonderful World’ I reviewed last year.

My other Christmas book is more sober. Called Refuge by Anne Booth and Sam Usher, it is a simple, spare retelling of the Christmas story reminding the reader that this was also a story of refugees with all the resonances for children caught up in the current desperate problems. This is a cause dear to my heart as I have just exchanged directing the Words in Walden Festival (after 10 wonderful years) for chairing Edlumino, a charity dedicated to providing education to children in refugee camps.

Finally, an intriguing book filed in the ‘Child Care’ section of bookshops is The Story Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Subtitled ‘An A-Z of Books to keep Kids Happy, Healthy and Wise’, this is a compendium of books with specific recommendations for their application in cases of everything from hiccups to heartache. 

Each entry gives a brief account of the proposed story cure. So, for example, the recommendation for ‘bed, having to stay in’ is Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr. For ‘happy ever after, had enough of’, the reader is directed to a range of titles including Russell Brand’s version of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, illustrated by Chris Riddell. It even supplies a handy guide for ‘told what to read, not liking being’!

The authors met at Cambridge University and started giving each other novels whenever one of them seemed in need of a boost. Their first collection was The Novel Cure in 2013 and this is the natural progression. Fabulous!

All these books are either on the shelves at, or can be ordered from, Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden. The lovely bookshop staff will be taking over the Words in Walden reins from me in 2017. I do hope you’ll continue to support both the bookshop and the festivals and I look forward to seeing you there.


Jo Burch - Words in Walden Festival Director


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