Leaping onto the bandwagon of highly illustrated texts for young readers (in the vein of Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre), comes a new title about a voyage on the seas. It’s not as wacky as Philip Reeve’s tales, but this story is told with such beautiful writing, that it had to be my book of the week.
Nelly is determined to set sail and search for her father, who promised to return after a year, but has been missing at sea for a long time. Leaving behind her mother, who seems to do little except sit and knit, Nelly roams the seas with just her pet turtle, Columbus for company.
Nelly is a plucky and resourceful heroine, just like her contemporaries, Ottoline by Chris Riddell and Violet by Harriet Whitehorn, and following in the footsteps of Pippi Longstocking. When Nelly says she is going to do something she sticks to it. She knits new sails for her ship, stocks it with provisions, and while sailing the high seas she learns to juggle china cups and eats lemons for a month. She may be a solitary child, but she is never bored.
The author’s knowledge of seas (he wrote a biography of Authur Ransome, the author of Swallows and Amazons) comes into its own here with lavish descriptions of boats and sailing, from storms at sea to the tasks of maintaining a ship. The story contains a rich vocabulary of sailing terminology. But that is not all, Chamber’s descriptions are simply sumptuous:
“When Nelly sailed into her first storm it was as though a thousand shouting mouths had opened in the water.”
and things take off spectacularly when Nelly reaches a surprising volcano in the northern seas, inside which her father might be residing:
“And all the time the drums sounded louder-lub-dub, lub-dub-like Nelly’s own heart beating, so that it was hard to tell what was inside and what was outside.”
The story veers off into fantasy (as if it wasn’t fantasy enough with a girl sailing with knitted sails across the world on her own), as she delves into a hidden volcano at the top of the world, inside which is a jungle where her father and his crew are living quite happily.
Despite being fantastical, and a delight to read, there are patches of extraordinary darkness – her parent’s inconceivable neglect, scary moments at sea, the frightening trek through the jungle, and her complicated reunion with her father.
Some critics have alluded to the lack of female characters – Nelly is the only female in the entire book (the mother is notable by her absence), but I would think there is scope for this to be rectified in further stories of Nelly. Moreover, her strength, intelligence and integrity stand out against the lack of qualities in the male characters. And it is superbly tongue-in-cheek that she is granted ‘honorary gentleman status’.
Ella Okstad’s illustrations enhance the text; there are maps, portraits, fabulous depictions of Nelly’s turtle, and great pictures of the ship to assist any reader struggling with the rich language. Although the interest level is 7+yrs, the reading level is slightly higher because of the language – but this is a treat – it means it’s ripe for reading aloud to your children – and more enjoyment for all.
I reviewed a proof copy of this book, which sadly didn’t contain all the finished illustrations. You can buy your own copy here, and enjoy all the illustrations fully.