Review: Hippopotamister by John Patrick Green

Meta use of anthropomorphic animals in story of self-acceptance.

Publication Date: 10th May 2016
Publisher: First Second Books

Hippopotamister is a graphic novel aimed at younger readers, with great characters and an entertaining premise. The conclusion is a wonderful – if somewhat predictable – tying up of loose ends, and an excellent positive note to end on. John Patrick Green has also not missed out on the opportunity for humour, and a quick reminder that ‘being yourself’ is always better than trying to be anyone else.

The plot and character development is just right, and the story flows well. There does seem to be an odd disparity between a fairly traditional ‘picture book’ story, and a length of over 32 pages, but once the reader gets used to the format that is easily forgotten. The text is also riddled with puns, making it a consistently enjoyable read. A personal favourite is a literal interpretation of ‘balancing the books’, which is not commented on but lies within the illustrations as an in-joke between writer and reader.

The jewel in the book’s crown is definitely its illustrations. The various jobs that Red Panda and Hippopotamister take on are wonderfully recreated, and Hippopotamister’s natural talent in all of them is comically juxtaposed with Red Panda’s apparent ineptitude. A wonderful bonus comes at the end, in the form of a couple of instructional pages on trying your hand at drawing the characters yourself. This compounds the pleasure from the story and allows the reader to engage in another way.

I would recommend this book to children in the older end of the picture book age bracket, simply because of its length, but also to anyone partial to a humorous graphic novel. It would also make an excellent graduation present for any young people just entering the job market.

Review: Wildwitch: Wildfire by Lene Kaaberbøl and Rohan Eason, translated by Charlotte Barslund

The Worst Witch meets the Hunger Games.

Publication Date: 21st January 2016
Publisher: Pushkin Children’s

Wildwitch: Wildfire was a thoroughly enjoyable novel, with interesting characters and a compelling plot. Part bildungsroman, part fantasy, part court drama, Kaaberbøl’s story allows the reader to follow young Clara’s journey from her normal life, to a new and magical world.

The writing is clear and enticing, a testament both to the original and to Barslund’s translation. Apart from creating an impressive and wondrous imaginarium, where ‘wildwitches’ protect and control the natural world, ruled by their own councils and laws, the novel’s greatest attraction is the simplicity with which Clara carries herself; the way honesty is rewarded above skill. Unlike other novels in similar genres, where the main character miraculously acquires the skills they need under pressure, Clara does not surpass herself, nor is she surprised by what she can do in her trials. She is simply true to herself, and the only thing she needs is confidence in her and the desire to keep learning.

There are a few aspects which remain unexplained, perhaps unnecessarily – how did Clara perform magic with iron around her throat? Why is Chimera after her? What does Oscar think of all this? The important thing about these questions is that they don’t affect the reader during the novel, only after, demonstrating the fluency and pace of the story. Wildfire is just the first in a series – these unanswered questions certainly cement the reader’s desire to keep reading the Wildwitch series.

The illustrations are sensitive and work well with the tone of the story. Eason has created classic images with creative twists, that add atmospheric touches to this beautiful novel.

I recommend Wildwitch: Wildfire – and the ensuing addiction to the series – to any children with a penchant for magical writing, and anyone who holds out a secret hope that there are powers yet to be discovered. I would also encourage those with a love for the natural world to give this novel their full attention, as it is wonderfully represented. Overall, a fantastic read, and one that you’ll find hard to put down.

Review: Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings by Edward McLachlan

A dive into the world of childhood drawings.

Publication date: 17th February 2016
Publisher: Dover Publications

Opening this beautiful book, one can immediately see how Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings was brought to life on screen in the seventies. It takes such a simple premise – drawings that come alive – and executes it perfectly. This new edition of a classic serves as a wonderful compilation and demonstrates McLachlan’s timeless storytelling.

The four stories included in the edition display a range of adventures, where Simon both creates the conflict and neutralises it. This is a positive format, if insular, and highlights the power of imagination that the book has at its heart. McLachlan’s writing is pithy and effective, resulting in excellent prose to complement his drawings.

The illustrations are a wonderful combination of professional and childish, and gives the impression of mixed media. The ‘Drawings’ are expertly create to replicate childish technique, whilst retaining definite recognisability, and the Land of Chalk Drawings has been created with the classic technique of scratching through black crayon to reveal a layer of colour. This is not only a familiar technique that children will be able to gleefully identify, it achieves an impressive result whilst retaining characteristic simplicity.

I recommend this as a welcome addition to any home library, as a beautifully creative work in a quality edition. Don’t let the fact that these stories were first written half a century ago put you off, they are certainly not dated and remain a joy to read.


Review: The Story without an End by Sarah Austin and Eleanor Vere Boyle (translated from Carové)

A romantic reprint of a 19th century childhood idyll.

Publication date: 15th December 2015
Publisher: Dover Publications

Unfortunately, I have to admit that I found The Story Without an End archaic. I’m not sure if it’s because I find descriptions of a beautiful natural world trite, or because inanimate objects being called “she” is my pet peeve, but I found the work hackneyed. Understandably so, considering Dover have produced a new – and very good, I might add – edition of a translation from the mid 19th century. This necessarily results, however, in a translation as dated as the original text.

The imagery is impressive, and the detailed descriptions evoke feelings of tranquillity and  awe. The word “idyllic” springs to mind constantly, as the Child wanders parentless and aimless through its natural surroundings. However, the theme of innocence and reversion to the simplicity of mother nature is at once alluring, and overdone. There is also an undercurrent of theological significance, as the Child exhibits certain Christ-like qualities, which, again, both add to the atmosphere and make it obsolete. It has something of The Waterbabies about it, which is unshakeable.

The illustrations are traditional and highly recognisable as similar to those that accompany Hans Christian Andersen’s works. They complement the text perfectly, and portray the common conflation of unblemished innocence and childhood that riddles the text. The cherubic, androgynous Child is fairy-like as it features in stunning pastoral backdrops. They could definitely serve as classic prints in a child’s bedroom, and their retention is a definite highlight of this edition.

I believe that this book’s appeal lies predominantly in its value as a reference piece. It is a beautiful edition, so if any adults had enjoyed this as children, or are partial to Victorian children’s literature, it is certainly worth consideration. The modern child is likely to find a lot of the imagery attractive – especially the sentient flowers – however there are lulls that are not often reflected in the contemporary children’s book. This might make it a fairly difficult read.