There was a fun exchange on Twitter last week under the #PBNatter hashtag about scary picture books. The special guest was Jose Domingo, whose comic and game book hybrid Pablo & Jane and the Hot Air Contraption you really must seek out. He mentioned a favourite ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style book called The Castle of Fear. It reminded me of another dark house game book from my childhood, The Adventures of the Black Hand Gang by H.J. Press.
There’s nothing explicitly scary to be found here, but this is a book packed full with mystery. Every page is littered with little puzzles for the reader to solve by reading the text and studying the intricate illustrations on the adjoining page.
The Black Hand Gang are a group of children and their pet squirrel who run a detective agency from their bedroom, running around a northern European setting that will appeal to fans of Emil and the Detectives.
The book sees them through four different cases, which involve the gang exploring mysterious dark houses and finding stolen booty at the bottom of a litter strewn lake.
The perpetrators of these nefarious activities are invariably thick set eastern european types.
H.J. Press was a German writer and illustrator, and I think it was his moody settings that captured my imagination as much as the puzzles. Press follows Hergé’s ligne claire style, adding heavy black and grey shadows to his heavily detailed scenes.
I’d love to see more of this sort of thing published today. Reading it again, although I’d forgotten about most of the text, I was struck by how the small details on many of the pages were ingrained in my memory.
With children now playing fast moving video games, with slick graphics rushing past at the speed of light I wonder whether a key step in developing visual literacy is being lost, or at least replaced with something else. There’s really nothing like getting lost for hours in a single beautiful illustration and decoding its deeply hidden secrets.