Since he was about one year old, I’ve usually read OMB his bedtime story. The first real favourite was Kiss Goodnight Sam which on one memorable night he insisted on having read a dozen times. Fortunately since then he’s developed to the point when we can read stories which are more interesting for me and can hold his attention when read chapter by chapter over a longer period (although I’ve called a halt on Harry Potter as it took us the best part of six months to get through The Order of the Phoenix). When the Costa Book prize was being discussed on Radio 4 earlier in the year there was an interesting feature about Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell which had won the children’s book category and I decided to give it a try as it was described as being for the 8+ age range.
Riddell is the political cartoonist for The Observer and one of the most striking features of the book is the range of meticulous and intricate illustrations on pretty much every page. This has a slight drawback in a bedtime book as it makes it difficult to insist on OMB closing his eyes to listen (and hopefully, to drop off after the end of the chapter…). The illustrations are pretty amazing and reminded me of my German teacher at school (Nicholas Wilde) who was also the writer of illustrated children’s books and who used to do similar goth-tinged cartoons on the whiteboard and margins of our exercise books and worksheets.
Goth Girl is very much a book designed to work for both adult and child readers in a similar way to that found in many animated movies in the Pixar/Dreamworks style. That is, there are lots of features which are aimed squarely at adults which would fly over the heads of child readers while the underlying story and language are intended to be entertaining for children. However, unlike in films like the Shrek or Toy Story series where the “adult” references are generally lightly applied and themselves based on films and popular culture, in Goth Girl, the references come thick and fast and are decidedly literary. At times it feels as a reasonably well-read adult that the references are troweled on too thickly and I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of them, but they managed to be done with sufficient wit to be entertaining for OMB rather than puzzlingly gratuitous.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the plot of the book is rather thin and is very much a framework for showcasing the literary references. The heroine, Ada Goth, is the daughter of a thinly disguised Byron (although Riddell doesn’t go so far as to try and introduce Byron’s real daughter, Ada Lovelace’s mathematical prowess and contribution to the development of computing, perhaps slightly surprisingly given that a version of Charles Babbage does appear and his daughter “Emily Cabbage” is a character in the book). She is visited by Ishmael the ghost of a mouse who is haunting the sprawling Ghastly-Gorm Hall (so, we get the line from Moby Dick “Call me Ishmael” and are, as adults, lined up to view the setting as inspired by Gormenghast). The plot and characters then take in Frankenstein, Dracula, Jane Eyre, Mary Poppins, Tristram Shandy, Dr Johnson, Martin Chuzzlewit (here as a pugnatious political cartoonist perpetually in boxing gloves in the expectation of being fought by the subjects of his cartoons despite the fact that those cartoons are so obscure that nobody gets offended by them…), Gullivers Travels and most likely dozens of others. You get the idea.
The beauty of the illustrations and the fact that, at least for OMB, the story was funny enough to work without knowing any of the references mean the book is worth trying. It would have been an easier adult read had it not been quite so over-stuffed with references which might make some readers feel ever so clever for spotting, but on occasion just tired me out. I’m still irritated by not really knowing what the “metaphorical bicycle race” at the heart of the book was all about other than possibly the author having a competition with himself about how many literary metaphors he could load into one book. And the point of reading a book at bedtime is to help get the little one exhausted, not the dad!