Book Review: Mr Postmouse Goes on Holiday, by Marianne Dubuc, translated by Greet Pauelijn

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_mr_postmouse_goes_on_holidayWhen I was a little boy I used to read (or at least I had read to me) Richard Scarry’s wonderful series, especially What Do People Do All Day? and the Huckle stories. These were fantastic books with animals, dressed as humans, at the heart them. In every tale, they lived, dressed and talked just like we did but the most wonderful part was Scarry’s exploded and cut away drawings, which allowed you to see inside buildings, cars, firetrucks and even submarines. Coupled with exquisite details but a relaxed style, you really got inside the lives of these characters – to dream and imagine what they were like and let your mind wonder beyond the stories.

Reading French Canadian author/illustrator Marianne Dubuc’s new book, Mr Postmouse goes on Holiday, I felt just the same way I did reading Mr Scarry. Along with my six-year-old daughter, we poured over the brightly coloured, charming and detailed water colour illustrations, almost forgetting to actually read the story. Actually, it’s not hard because Dubuc has intentionally placed the text, single sentence blocks, in amongst her drawings, as if she wants you to discover them. Perhaps those who are a bit eye-sight challenged may have to grab their specs but the learner-readers in my house hold took great delight in picking their way through the 10-point font size, as if there were treasures to uncover. And on that point Dubuc’s language is simple enough for new readers, years 1 & 2, especially. The translation from French is clean and intelligent. No clunky sentences or odd phrasing to stubble over. It remains compelling enough to move the story along and keep the pages turning.

The plot is very simple. What does Mr Postmouse do when he goes on holiday? He continues to deliver the mail of course. Sound like a few parents you may know, who just can’t switch off their work phones when they go to the beach? This a return of Dubuc’s characters, the Postmouse family, this time as Globetrotters bouncing around the planet dropping off packages to their friends on the way; sailing on ships with opera shows on board; toasting marshmallows over a volcano; flying in hot air balloons and visiting Eskimos at the Pole. In amongst the narrative illustrations, Dubuc drops in a few visual jokes which the adults and caregivers will appreciate. For example, there’s a scene where they all stay at a campsite. While family pitching tents in the foreground, two children are dropping bread crumbs as they approach a house made of candy. In the trees, there’s a squirrel with sunglasses and a troupe of Boy Scouts on a trek. In the desert scene, there’s a snake living in a palatially appointed four room cactus apartment, whilst another serpent is sneaking around in the branches of an apple tree and a little Postmouse is taking a luxurious a dip in the hotel’s oasis, blowing water spouts like a Blue Whale.

I’d not come across Montreal based Dubuc before but I’d be keen to explore here repertoire further now. She has books, including Here Comes Mr Postmouse and the Lion and The Bird, in over 20 languages for many different age groups but, clearly, she really enjoys producing material like this. You can feel the joy in every page. You can see why she won the 2014 Governor General Award, a Canadian literary award for English-language fiction, for outstanding illustrations for her book The Lion and the Bird.

Reviewed by Tim Gruar

Mr Postmouse Goes on Holiday
by Marianne Dubuc, translated by Greet Pauelijn
Published by Book Island
ISBN 9781911496045

Book Review: Beck, by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_beckWhat a tale. The strengths of Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff merge imperceptibly in this story of a half-negro boy born on the wrong side of the sheets in Liverpool.

Beck’s early life was calm enough, but when the Influenza went through his family, his mother died, leaving him age 11 an orphan, in the ‘care’ of the Sisters of Mercy. We pick up with him as his life changes again, as he’s fed and bathed, and sent onto a ship – we soon find – to Canada, where he is taken into the care of The Christian Brotherhood. They taught him to read and write, garden and play games.

And while you can possibly predict the end at least, of that phase of his life; the telling is the pleasure of it. The showing of place is dramatic and beautiful, and yet again (after Barkskins) I want to go to the wilderness of Canada. Of a storm: “Beck stood in the narrowing space between the sunlit world ahead of him and the dark chaos behind. For a few moments, it was a kind of calm; then the wheat writhed, flattened and hissed. A wall of wind, unstoppable and full of ice, hit him, knocking him to his hands and knees.”

At the heart of this novel is the capacity of a person’s heart to change and grow, given the right conditions. There is no melodrama, no over-exaggeration; for much of this story, Beck has unforgivable challenges, but this isn’t what makes him tick. The people around him teach him to do what they need him to do, and feed him, and allow him to feel human warmth. And this is how it happens: how you grow from a husk to a person.

This is a true saga, though a relatively short book for all that. The beauty of the language is immersive, and it is a novel I can see being used within schools to talk about race, and travel, and the healing power that humans have for one another. Perhaps it will turn somebody onto the right path.

I met Mal Peet when he was living in Wellington for 6 months, teaching at the IIML. I pulled together a workshop for keen secondary school writers one Sunday, and it was magical. He was empathetic and encouraging, and his wife was also wonderful. The writing world is certainly poorer for his loss.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Beck
by Mal Peet with Meg Rosoff
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406331127