She’s mastered the strip cartoon, broken ground with her graphic novels and taken picture books to the Oscars, but one place Posy Simmonds’ illustration hasn’t been seen much is in spot illustration for children’s novels.
The reason for this may be that in Humphrey Carpenter’s The Captain Hook Affair (1979), she got to draw all her favourite children’s books at once.
Peter Pan, Jack and the Beanstalk, Alice in Wonderland, and Samuel Whiskers all feature in an adventure that sees a pair of care home kids whisked away from their worries into familiar worlds of escapism, excitement and danger.
Although her books don’t feature, there is a strong flavour of E. Nesbit about this tale of a magic propelling pencil that can transport the user into any fictional world.
Carpenter is best known for writing the long running Mr Majeika series, and he was also one of the scholars behind the original Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. He knows his sources well, and it shows.
Posie’s illustrations manage to be both faithful to the originals and uniquely hers. The Captain Hook Affair really grabs these old stories by the scruff of the neck and shakes some life back into them.
The book has an enjoyable social realist edge to it – something that was pretty de rigeur in children’s books of the time. And where it works best is interweaving of the two worlds. Captain Hook’s siege of the care home, cannon and all is an absolute treat, both tense and funny.
But Hook isn’t the biggest danger here – it’s Jack, a boy Lizzy falls in with when he spots her using the pencil. He’s intelligent, manipulative and ruthless – physically attacking the generally passive Lizzy and using the pencil for his own ends. He is happy to incite violent rebellion against the abusive care home manager and even mutiny against his entire country.
Their plan succeeds, not so much because of captain Hook, who as we know is a braggard and coward, but because the children turn on Mr Smedley, the abusive manager of the home. In the days that follow the Captain is installed as Superintendent – a disturbingly easy vacancy to fill in the world of 1970s social services.
The idea of taking famous characters out of children’s fiction and placing them in new scenarios is a well worn trope, in books and TV. Most recently Anna James’s debut Pages and Co. brought Alice and Anne of Green Gables into the modern world. There’s a thrill in bringing the classics back to life, and this book delivers that with humour and great artistry.