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A conspiracy of ravens
on March 12, 2005
When you are feeling bored with life and cannot think of anything else to do, ask your nearest and dearest friends and relations to recommend their favorite books from when they were young. You're bound to be amazed by the insight you receive when you find out that your dreamy peculiar friend loved "The Giving Tree" while your uptight straight-as-a-rod neighbor was a fan of "Mertle the Turtle". I was once asking a friend of mine what book he best preferred when he mentioned "Arabel's Raven" by Joan Aiken. I'd heard of Ms. Aiken before, of course. The author of that magnificent "Wolves of Willoughby Chase", Aiken was the gothic queen of her day. But a quick glance at the cover of "Arabel's Raven" shows she had a lighter sillier side as well. Illustrated by an illustrator best known, perhaps, for his Roald Dahl books, Quentin Blake adds his distinctive style to this book about a girl and her perpetually voracious and curious raven.
Mr. Jones, we are told right off the bat, was a respectable taxi driver. And had he not been sideswiped by two maniacs on a motorcycle, he might never have noticed them hit a small black object that was attempting to cross the road. On further inspection, Mr. Jones sees an unconscious and remarkably huge raven knocked out cold on the street. Being a charitable soul, he brings the bird home to recuperate. But what Mr. Jones doesn't count on is the raven's remarkable appetite once it wakes up and sees where it is. Before you know it, it's pushing objects under the linoleum, eating the stairs (it has a real penchant for a good staircase), and knocking various objects to the ground. Mr. Jones is stunned. Mrs. Jones is aghast. Arabel Jones, their daughter, is in love. She swiftly names the bird Mortimer and adopts him on the spot. Their adventures together in this book involve everything from catching jewel thieves to breaking into hospitals to rescuing fainting babysitters. And you find as you read that the affection Mr. and Mrs. Jones come to have for Mortimer is the same affection you feel for him. It makes for truly amusing and touching reading.
There are lots of great books for kids that involve inviting a crazy n'er-do-well into one's home with disastrous results. "The Cat In the Hat", "Pippi Longstocking", etc. But these n'er-do-wells tend to be crazy because they're crazy people. Mortimer, on the other hand, acts like a wild animal in a domestic environment. Everything he does, aside from his eating habits, is understandable. I can perfectly imagine a pet who decides to be pulled everywhere in a red wagon or insists on sleeping in a bread bin. Mortimer's ability to eat anything and everything (at one point he devours an entire staircase leading from a subway train to its upstairs entrance) is just the kind of outrageous silliness to make the book exciting and full of what-will-Mortimer-do-next feelings. And then there's also the fact that Mortimer, while being very much a raven with a raven mind-set and emotions, really does care deeply for Arabel. When she becomes sick he goes to great lengths to reach her inside a closed up hospital. And Quentin Blake's illustrations are hilarious. I was particularly fond of the ones that showed Mortimer walking. One foot stuck straight out in front of him and a cheeky smile on his face.
The book is also full of jokes that parents will get while their children fail to understand. As a raven, Mortimer's continual cries of "Nevermore" are always well placed in the narrative. There are also truly Roald Dahl-like descriptive moments that are just as impressive in terms of their creativity as they are for their ridiculousness. For example, in one section, Mortimer has become entranced with the idea of machines you can put coins into. So off Arabel and her babysitter go to a newly renovated tube station with tons of machines. Says the book of them, "Another has apples, pears, or bananas. Another had sandwiches or meat pies.... Another would take a photograph of you looking as if you had seen a ghost. Another would massage the soles of your feet. Another would say a cheering poem and hold your hand while it did so... Another would blow your nose for you on a clean tissue, if you stuck the nose into a slot and, as well as that, give you a Vitamin C tablet and two mentholated throat lozenges, all for fivepence". This is a book that is unafraid to make jokes and references that fly high high above the intended audience's head. Parents everywhere should be grateful.
Flaws? Not many. Unless you count the fact that in spite of the fact that this is a book that takes place in Britain, the odd word here and there has been Americanized. I kept becoming confused when characters would eat "chips", because I was certain that in Britain chips are actually fries. Yet the pictures show actual potato chips being consumed. It makes for an odd reading.
So if you've a child who loves their Roald Dahl but wants to try something a little different, "Arabel's Raven" is an obvious next step. It's lighthearted and witty, with just enough mischief and good spirits to keep them interested and involved. A fabulous story for young `uns.