It says a lot about how much I associate Quentin Blake’s illustrations with Roald Dahl that the first time I saw the cover of How Tom beat Captain Najork and his hired Sportsmen, I automatically assumed it was just a story that I’d skipped during my childhood Dahl phase. And actually it wasn’t until after I’d read it for the first time that I looked more closely at the title and realised that it wasn’t. I’m sure Russell Hoban would have liked to be known and instantly recognised on his own account, but to be mistaken for Roald Dahl is, in my book at least, exceedingly high praise.
And this is an exceedingly Dahl-ish story without being in any way a copy or an echo of any of the characters that we already know and love.
Tom would have been one of those babies who never stopped wriggling. He can’t leave anything alone; he likes to muck about to explore, to think “what would happen if…” and then go and do it. He does balancing things, squelchy mud things, plays with barrels and ladders and paper clips and two of three cigar bands and he loves it. Unfortunately, his guardian Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong (good name!) is not a fan of fooling around; she requires stillness, attention to unmentionable unappetising dinners and memorisation of the nautical almanac.
And when Tom just can’t manage that she calls in some help in the form of Captain Najork who declares that he and the hired sportsmen will play Tom at womble, muck and sneedball in and effort to teach him the error of his ways.
Well happily for Tom and unhappily for the hired sportsmen who become increasingly wet and muddy as the games go on, all of Captain Najork’s games turn out to be precisely the kind of fooling around that Tom is best at, and he gives the opposition rather a thrashing. But that’s not the height of Tom’s cleverness; he places a wager with Captain Najork for the final game: Captain Najork’s Boat against Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong. I’ll leave it to you to imagine how that sneedball final went down, but I think we can safely say that everyone got a happy ending, Aunt Fidget Wonkahm-Strong, Captain Najork, Tom and new aunt named Bundlejoy Cosysweet. Well all except for the hired sportsmen, who spent the rest of their days learning pages from the nautical almanac after dinner.
It’s the language and the absurd details that make it such a joy to read; all these games are total nonsense but you want to wrap your tongue around their descriptions as you read them and let your imagination run to come up with what on earth a game of wobble might look like. And of course Quentin Blake’s illustrations are just so much fun.
As stories go it’s a little longer than the girls’ usual picture books but not so long that they loose attention and it makes for a wonderful read for a proper curl up and have a story time.
If you have read something lovely recently, please do put your link in the comments section and shout to the world – and we’ll all come and have a read! Last week Jess and Rosalie introduced me to yet another Julia Donaldson that I’ve never heard of before in Hide and Seek Pig (seriously, how many books has she written!) and Jemma has found an absolute classic to follow on from My Naughty Little Sister; Sally’s Secret is an absolute gem, was a favourite of my childhood and is in the box of special grandchildren and other small visitors books at my Dad’s house; it’s one of those books you have to read at least once.
What We’re Reading is a weekly round up of posts about children’s books. That’s about as far as the ‘rules’ go; it can be picture books, baby books, books for older children or even young adult if you like; just come and join us to tell us what you’ve been reading recently or if you’d rather join in on Instagram or Twitter that would be wonderful too, just use the hashtag #whatweread and tag me (@cariemay on Instagram and @cariemaymakes on Twitter) and then we can all come and say hi.