Friday, 7 November 2014

ReadItDaddy's Book of the Week - Week Ending 7th November 2014 - "Russell Brand's Trickster Tales - The Pied Piper of Hamelin" by Russell Brand and Chris Riddell (Canongate Books)

Russell Brand's Trickster Tales - The Pied Piper of Hamelin

Written by Russell Brand

Illustrated by Chris Riddell

Published by Canongate Books

Lawks-a-Lordy! When Charlotte asked me who Russell Brand was, I had a bit of a quandary. How could I describe an actor, writer and comedian whose antics (on and off the pages of the red-tops) are not usually child friendly? (For info, I had to refer to him as one of the voices in "Despicable Me" and that still didn't really satisfy Charlotte's curiosity, so a little help here...?)

I've been intrigued by how Russell's first book for children would turn out, and when news leaked that Chris Riddell would be illustrating his set of "Trickster Tales" I was even more intrigued. An anarchic wit paired with an illustrative uber-meister? What could possibly go awry?

Nothing, is the short answer...and forgive me for being slightly more periphrastic with my language than usual for these reviews, I thought I'd try and emulate Brand's narrative in the retelling of the classic fairy tale, given a dark tweak of the neeps or two under Brand's locquacious pen.

The familiar tale of Hamelin begins with a description of the perfect town, where nothing goes wrong, everything is neat and tidy and ordered, and the townsfolk have little else to do all day but engage in fruitless competition over an atmosphere of tedious ennui. Everyone strives for perfection, so when a child is born who is 'less than perfect' in the eyes of the townsfolk, they reveal their hidden foulness, wanting to cast the child out. But his mother loves him, calls him Sam and defends him to the last, and so they make a life in Hamelin surrounded by scoffers, sneerers and ne'er do wells.

One particular ne'er do well is the biggest fattest bully-child in the town - who delights in picking on poor Sam. Along with the bully's compatriots (who are equally insidious), Brand really lets rip with his descriptions of these nasty tykes, sailing as close to the wind as the editors allowed (and boy oh boy, wouldn't you like to have seen the pitch meeting and the first draft of this book, if the final version is anything to go by?)

As the Townsfolk become more and more obnoxious, preparing for the "Prettiest Child" annual competition and parade, a plague of rats descends on Hamelin, ready to skitter amongst the perfection to wreak awful, terrible havoc. For a short while the rats rule the roost, but a mysterious stranger arrives - a Piper, with a simple remit.

"I can rid you of the rats" the Piper vows. "But I want paying in gold!"

I think it's worth pausing a moment here because you're probably more than familiar with the story, but I wanted to draw attention to Brand and Riddell's depiction of the Piper. Imagine if you can a cross between Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Noel Fielding and possibly even a smidgeon or two of Brand himself. Clad in pointy boots, a harlequin-esque jumpsuit, with hair as black as a crow's backside and a hat to match. He's exactly as you'd want the Piper to be orally and visually described. A saviour? Perhaps, but with the darkest blackest judicial heart beating silently under his cloak.

As the story unwinds, the Piper does as he is bid and rids Hamelin of the scourge. The Townsfolk (who, as we've already ascertained, are a nasty bunch bar Sam and his Mum) try to wriggle out of payment - offering the Piper a sandwich and nothing else. Needless to say, this isn't exactly a good move for a bunch of brainless nitwits and the Piper will be paid - or exact his terrible revenge!!

I'll leave you to discover the ins and outs of how the story plays out in Brand and Riddell's version of events, suffice to say that both of us could not put this book down. It's long for a children's book but we wanted to read it through - twice - before bed.

A note of caution though. Of all the celebrity-penned children's books we've seen while we've been compiling posts for this blog, this is the one that you can close your eyes for a second after reading a paragraph or two, and imagine Russell Brand himself writing it, reading it aloud and then arguing vociferously with editors and probably even with Chris over how exactly this book should look, feel and sound when it hits eager hands after purchase. Because of that, it's something that you'll probably want to read through yourself before letting your little ones loose on it. I can take or leave Mr B, but I do get pretty uppity about 'celebrity' books, and the veiled assumption that writing for kids is a piece of cake - anyone can do it. Of course, dear children's book blog reader, you and I know different.

There is also slight irony in the fact that Brand's latest "Grown Up" book Revolution is being described as long-winded, rambling and smug when this first Trickster Tale is also being slammed for similar reasons in the broadsheets.

It's not particluarly long winded, doesn't ramble and gets to the core point of the tale with a fair amount of style and aplomb. It's certainly not smug either, in fact it's easy to see how the whole idea of letting Brand put a modern spin on classic fairy tales could've suffered adversely under the wrong editorial hand.

And that, dear reader, is an impressive achievement for any author. It's actually quite tricky and delicious to read aloud, it's quite rude in places (not too much, but I would probably aim it squarely at children a couple of years older than Charlotte who can probably stomach all-too-descriptive passages about pierced nipples and slick poo) but it's undoubtedly stamped with Brand through and through.

Writing aside, Chris Riddell's illustrations are (as you'd expect) utterly and completely brilliant so if you really can't stomach the thought of Brand having his wicked way with your favourite fairy tales, at least let Chris's visuals talk to you in their anarchic inky tones instead. Some of the page spreads in this are truly glorious.

The only real 'no getting away from it' negative points I'd have to raise about the book are the fact that certain words are explained throughout the story in little box-out clouds - and there's also a glossary of terms at the back. Personally I'd have let children ask the meanings of the words of their parents - no better excuse to dig out a dictionary and increase your own vocabulary but a big fat hooray for at least leaving those lengthy complicated words in! There's also the fact that Brand played it fairly safe, merely adapting (an eventual set of) traditional tales rather than coming up with his own stories. Not such an easy gig after all, writing for kids!

Charlotte's best bit: There are several wordless spreads in the book as the piper weaves his musical magic, first on the rats and then on the townsfolk and they're just utterly brilliantly illustrated (though she also rather loved the 'roundabout language' (as she described it) in the story.

Daddy's Favourite bit: I'll be perfectly honest, I expected to hate this. "Yet another celebrity cashing in on what they think is an easy gig" was my first thought but I was won over in a matter of pages. It's ribald, rude, it's funny and it's hugely entertaining. Brand's writing is hectic, chaotic but always expertly constructed and beautiful to read aloud (you can definitely visualise the man himself reading it in your head!) Chris Riddell's illustrations are (as ever) utterly and completely perfect too. A belter! More please Mr Trickster sir, more please!1

(Kindly sent to us for review by Canongate Books)