10 May 2010

Book of the Week (60): "Not Bad for a Bad Lad" by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Michael Foreman

What if fairytales could come true? This is a beautiful, tender, and moving story, an exciting creative collaboration between the two talented Michaels, their twenty third book together. As you might expect from them, it is beautifully presented and published. Morpurgo revisits the territory he made his own so memorably with War Horse, and brings it home. A young boy sits mesmerised as his grandfather reveals his wayward childhood growing up after the blitz. The first-person voice of his former self catapults us back in time so that we relive his experiences, as a fatherless boy whom only Miss West, his music teacher, believes in. He plays on bomb sites, is chased by the police, and ultimately caught stealing, sentenced to a spell in borstal in Hollesey Bay, Suffolk. Each of these experiences is suggestively and captivatingly illustrated by Foreman, whose own War Boy series and multiple awards for illustration admirably equip him for depicting this period. Every page is illustrated, and the images form a musical accompaniment to the story, bringing out key personalities and moments of transformation with telling detail and insight. Full-page scenes, and double page spreads in watercolour and pencil capture a range of moods and experiences, from a comic chase through bombed-out London to the moment he is caught by another young boy at night, raiding the family greenhouse for tomatoes. This moonlight encounter between the haves and the have-nots has a powerful, fairytale quality. Time and place come alive in the dialogue between the pictures and the text, and the boy’s alienation and isolation in Borstal are finely rendered. The landscape is very much a character, as the police van taking him to school seems at sea in a wash of vibrant greens, under a vast sky. The pictures give the reader a sense of hope, and amplify the emotional journey the story describes.

The boy finds himself drawn to the stables, and comes to the attention of Mr. Alfie, the taciturn but compassionate head horseman, who introduces him to his beloved Suffolk Punch horses. The boy develops a particularly close relationship with Dombey, a horse who is troubled and difficult, very much like the boy himself. Together they take us on a unique journey, and the words and images take flight, as he trains the horse by racing it along the seas’ edge, galloping through the rainbow surf. But their relationship is not to last, as Dombey is sold, and when he is discharged early for good behaviour, he ends up homeless on the streets of London. Just when everything seems hopeless, an extraordinary twist of fate reunites him with Dombey and changes his life forever. At last, he has the chance to make himself proud, and justify the special people who believed in him.

The storyteller's voice is quiet and understated, allowing the reader to become involved in the feelings his experiences evoke. The pictures make the story come alive, enriching the reader’s experience to create a layered and involving account of one boy’s redemption through tough experiences, luck, and some amazing horses. The story feels both deeply grounded in time and place, and truly timeless. It includes a fascinating appendix about Hollesley Bay Borstal, the Suffolk Punch horses, and the boys and men who cared for them. Whether you love horses, war stories, triumphs over adversity, or stories with a vivid sense of time and place, in which history comes intimately alive, this timeless classic is for you.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

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