Tuesday 18 November 2014

The Squickerwonkers by Evangeline Lilly and Johnny Fraser-Allen (Titan Books)

The Squickerwonkers

Written by Evangeline Lilly

Illustrated by Johnny Fraser-Allen
Published by Titan Books

We're not exactly the world's biggest fans of 'celebrity-penned' children's books. In most cases there's always something missing that someone exposed to a lot of children's books can smell a mile off. It's that indefinable whiff of a lack of passion for the job at hand and despite the heartfelt claims of the press release that often accompanies the books, we're never quite convinced that the author's parents, kids, loved ones, neighbour's cat are huge fans of the stories and that was the driving force behind the story's publication.

With Evangeline (Lost, The Hobbit) Lilly's new children's book though, we were intrigued by the promise of something that always has us drawn in. This isn't a lurid pink fairy book, nor is it a book based on the works of a well-loved children's author, given a bit of a whizz through a word processor by someone who's more famous for whizzing down red carpets. In Evangeline Lilly's own words, this is a story that's been kicking around for a good 20 years or so - long before the lady herself was famous. She has a passion for writing that overrides her passion for acting, so we couldn't wait to find out what on earth a Squickerwonker was.

A Squickerwonker - the very name is enough to have your youngsters giggling (don't try saying it while eating a mouthful of cream crackers, we urge you). This dark little tale revolves around a little girl who, quite innocently, steals into the travelling caravan of the aforementioned puppet folk. Evangeline's original poem is spun into a story as each of the Squickerwonkers is introduced, each with their own foibles and traits. There's Meghan the Mute who is quiet and mysterious, Papa the Proud as his name suggests, a neatly turned out fellah, Lorna the Lazy who can barely stay awake long enough to cast scorn on the little girl and Sparky the Spectacles who seems to be a bit of a sleazy character if we're honest. All these and more spin out their tales, before causing one heck of an uproar by popping the little girl's balloon.

Temper tantrums, we've seen 'em and the girl explodes into a quite spectacular one to match the explosion of her beloved balloon. You see she's not quite as sweet as she seems! We won't spoil the end of the story for you because we're really hoping that this largely introductory tale is just the very first in an intended series, it really should be!

The story is reminiscent of dark children's stuff by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Jon Klassen. Casting aside the obvious lure of seeing a celebrity's hard work in book form, there's definitely more than a spark of appeal for children in darker stories (after all, aren't the very best fairy stories ever written always stories of mystery and dark magic?)

The Squickerwonkers are nicely rounded-out characters (though I am actually wondering if the cast in this story isn't too big, some characters seem a little similar in their nefarious character traits) and Evangeline's flowing rhymes are really great to read aloud. So in essence this was a rather lovely surprise, that rare thing of a celebrity-penned story that doesn't suck AND also leaves you wanting more at the end (so come on Evangeline, stop larking around with those Hobbits and Elves and sit down at the Word Processor for Book two!)

We should also mention Johnny Fraser-Allen's art. He's a concept artist and sculptor at WETA Studios (the special effects geniuses behind the amazing stuff you see in Peter Jackson's movies). Charlotte was instantly drawn in by Johnny's rather quirky and distinctly different art style which suits the story to a tee. Again it's very reminiscent of the quirky (and slightly scary) stuff you usually see in Neil Gaiman's stories, by a variety of different artists. A dark children's story needs to exude that slight air of menace, both visually and aurally and it most certainly does.

For true Hobbit nerds, there's a rather lovely set of forewords in the book written by Sir Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens and if anyone knows a thing or two about a good fantasy story, it's that sacred trio!

"The Squickerwonkers" By Evangeline Lilly and Johnny Fraser-Allen launches today, 18th November 2014 from Titan Books. Find out more about the Squickerwonkers over at Evangeline Lilly's website.

Charlotte's best bit: Charley's visit to the dentist. Rinse please!

Daddy's Favourite bit: Brilliant fun for tiddlers, beautifully illustrated and told

(Kindly sent to us for review by Titan Books)