by Melanie Heuiser Hill
I have written before about the need for longer picture books in addition to the shorter ones making up the current trend in picture book publishing. I want to stay on the record as saying there’s plenty of reason to keep publishing picture books that are longer than 300–500 words. I’m an advocate for 3000–5000 words—a story with details! And to those who think kids won’t sit for them—HA! Try it. If the story is good, they’ll listen.
One of my favorite longer picture books is How Tom Beat Captain Najork And His Hired Sportsmen, written by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Quentin Blake. I did not count the words, but this is a story filled with long sentences, wonderful description, and very funny characters. There’s not an extra word in there, in my opinion, and the story could not be told in 300–500 words.
The book opens introducing Tom’s maiden aunt, Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, who wears an iron hat and take “no nonsense from anyone.” Where she walks, the flowers droop. When she sings (which is hard to imagine), the trees shiver.
This opening description and the accompanying picture can hook a roomful of kids. When you turn the page and read about Tom, Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong’s nephew, who likes to “fool around” the kid listeners are sold—they will sit for the several hundreds of words (many of them sophisticated words) it takes to tell the story.
Tom fools around with sticks and stones and crumpled paper and most anything else he can get his hands on. He’s gifted in the mud department and can make things from bent nails, cigar bands, and a couple of paper clips. He’s a boy MacGyver. And when his foe comes along, he is more than ready.
Who is his foe, you ask? Captain Najork. And it’s Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong who sets up the match. She sends for Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to teach Tom a lesson about fooling around.
“Captain Najork,” said Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, “is seven feet tall, with eyes like fire, a voice like thunder, and a handlebar moustache. His trousers are always freshly pressed, his blazer is immaculate, his shoes are polished mirror-bright, and he is every inch a terror.”
Well, when Captain Najork arrives on his pedal boat to reform Tom, Tom sees right away that he’s only six feet tall and his eyes are not like fire, nor is his voice like thunder. They size each other up, and the games begin. Captain Najork announces that they shall compete at womble, muck, and sneedball.
“How do you play womble?” said Tom.
“You’ll find out,” said Captian Najork.
“Who’s on my side?” said Tom.
“Nobody,” said Captain Najork. “Let’s get started.”
And so they do. The pictures are hysterical and the descriptions of the games— which aren’t really descriptions at all, but make you think you already know the finer points of womble, muck, and sneedball—are delightful.
Spoiler Alert: All of Tom’s fooling around turns out to have been most excellent training for trouncing Captain Najork and his ridiculous hired sportsmen. But I won’t tell you the wager Tom makes with the Captain or how that turns out for all involved. For that, you will have to find the book, which is not easy to find and which is expensive (though absolutely worth it) to make one’s own. Do look for it! It is out there, as is an underground crowd of extreme fans.
I had a writing teacher who read this book to me, and so I hear it in her voice, a respectable lilting British accent full of excellent drama and good fun. (She can do a formidable Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong!) I can’t quite pull off the accent, but I’ve never found a kid who minded. I once read this story in a Back-to-School Storytime along with a Skippyjon Jones book. It was an evening of hilarity and fun. And at the end, I had a request from two kids not old enough to start school yet to read it again. Which I did. To a roomful of people who quickly gathered. THAT’S a good book. A most excellent longer picture book.
P.S. Russell Hoban and Quentin Blake are an inspired match—they’ve collaborated on several books. For a treat, listen to Blake talk about his fondness for this story and its characters.