'I'm putting two and two together, as Dad says. Except it's more like trying to add the square root of seven and thirty-one to the fifth power.' (p 100)
Bob initially attracted me (irresistibly) by virtue of its being illustrated by a children's book artist I consider to be one of the very finest around, Nicholas Gannon. He writes as well as illustrates and I have hugely admired, as well a greatly enjoyed, his own books (The Doldrums and The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse - see my reviews from November '15 and December '17)*. Here, however, he is just the illustrator - although 'just' is far too demeaning a word. His characteristic sepia toned pictures, whole pages and occasional vignettes, are as bewitchingly brilliant as ever. (Did you spot the few subtle hints of colour on the cover? Another characteristic of his work.) His images are often beguilingly beautiful too. My only complaint is that there aren't more of them. I know of few others illustrators who can draw you quite so magically into a world that is intriguingly caught between reality and imagination. The woodland scene on page 177 is breathtaking.
In fact, this little volume, from US publishing imprint Fiewel and Friends, has been beautifully designed all round. Gentle brown tones in chapter headers and page footers, as well as occasional text, echo the illustrations, and extend the sepia mood to the whole book in a way that feels completely apt.
However, in dwelling on the art and aesthetic of Bob, I do not mean to imply any lack of enthusiasm for the story itself, which is truly special in its own right. Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead are both deservedly renowned authors and the comparatively short book they have now penned together is as skilfully and sensitively written as we might have expected. It enchants and delights at the turn of every page.
The story is about Olivia (Livy), a ten (and a half) year-old who has come from her home in Massachusetts to visit for a while with her grandmother in Australia. The last time she was here was when she was only five. Arriving back, she rediscovers a strange 'friend' who she had completely forgotten about. Bob is not exactly human, however. Rather, he appears to be a sort of very distant cousin of E.T., or perhaps a much younger, less obstreperous, non-Scottish version of Raymond Briggs' The Man. He certainly isn't the zombie she thought him to be when she was younger. Whatever he is, though, after five years of waiting for Livy in a dark cupboard dressed in a makeshift chicken outfit, he is certainly feeling a little neglected - and boy does he know how to play on it.
Livy's quest to discover who (or even what) Bob is, and possibly to help him home, provides the core of the subsequent narrative. It is hard to explain more without giving too much away, but suffice to say that you may well find you have not worked out the ending anywhere near as well as you thought you had.
The book is imaginative, intriguing and endearing. It is charming and funny in equal measure. It is sweet, in a myriad delightful ways. It truly touches at the same time as it entertains and surprises. It is a story that so beautifully captures aspects of both five and ten-year-old childhood that it chimes with much that is universal too.
In all honesty, Bob is also verging on the sentimental. In fact, it might well have verged. But that is not always so bad a thing. After all, the same applies to Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Le Petit Prince and that is loved the world over, and, even seventy-odd years after its original publication, has sales of more than two million copies per year. The little prince's simple story and its original illustrations are treasured by countless readers as an affecting link to their lost childhood (or even to a childhood they never actually had). People like to get sentimental sometimes, and children more so (even if they don't always want to admit it).
In fact, now that I think about it, The Little Prince is not too misleading a comparator at all. Bob could well become the twenty-first century's equivalent.
Wendy Mass and Rebecca Stead's clever writing uses quite a few numbered lists in Bob to capture the thoughts and feelings of their characters. So, with apologies to the authors, here is what I think could very well happen to this little book into the future:
1. Parents will read it to their kids. They will all be enchanted by it.
2. Kids will read it for themselves. They will reread it at intervals over coming years, even when they are 'too old' (way 'too old') for it.
3. When it is time to go to college or uni, they will sneak it into their luggage along with their old teddy bear (wonky donkey, cuddly armadillo, busted action figure, smelly bit of blanket, or whatever).
4. When they get there, they will hide Bob in the bottom of a drawer and most certainly not put it on the shelf with the two titles from the pre-course reading list that they bought dirt cheap off eBay, but haven't actually read. (They want to appear cool, after all.)
5 They will furtively take it out to read on the first night, when they feel a bit home sick, and on several other occasions when they should be completing assignments or revising for exams.
6. One night, after drinking far too much alcohol, they will confess to their new best-ever friend that it is their favourite book of all time, only to discover that their soulmate thinks exactly the same.
7. They will later shelve it with their others books as a post-ironic statement.
8. When they fall in love they will send electronic billets-doux with their feelings expressed as numbered lists, in homage to Bob.
9. When they have a child of their own they will buy a new copy well before the kid is old enough to read, on the basis that it is a book every child should grow up with.
10. When they become grandparents they will gift their grandchild an anniversary edition, with, of course, Nicholas Gannon's original illustrations. (It would simply not be right without.)
All this will repeat in cycles for generations to come.
Bob is that sort of book. . . and it may, just possibly, help us know life, the universe and ourselves a little better. . . if we find the pawn . . .and remember the liquorice.**
*In fact I love them far more than Marmite.
**You'll and understand when you've read it!