By: Robert Inman
Reviewed by: Tony Crunk
Novello Festival Press, 2006
This is an interesting hybrid of a children’s book. While long enough to be a chapter book, it more closely resembles a picture book in format (per physical dimensions, color illustrations, e.g.). As a holiday book, then, it seems designed to appeal to all ages of young readers (or listeners).
The story centers on the Peaceful Valley Orphanage, the indomitable Mrs. Frump who runs it, and the high-octane kids who live there. Mrs. Frump is under siege by the unkindly orphanage management, who don’t think she runs a tight enough ship, as her sometimes mischievous kids don’t seem under tight enough rein. As this could possibly be her last with them, Mrs. Frump wants to assure that her charges have the most memorable Christmas ever, so she finds local families that will take each of them in for a holiday visit.
This main story—of Mrs. F.’s ferrying the orphans o’er hill and dale in a ramshackle bus, just ahead of the orphanage management, local Sheriff, et al.—becomes entwined with that of a “Traveling Troubadour,” who is returning to his long-suffering fiancé after an ill-advised venture into seeking his fortune on the road as a musician.
The book is adapted from the author’s stage version of the same story. The qualities that probably made it engaging as theatre stand out here as well: there’s plenty of dramatic action, lots of peppy dialogue, and a rousing, satisfying ending. And Mrs. Frump is certainly an entertaining enough character to hold the drama together.
However, the book seems to suffer in the translation. In particular, the narration is at times overstuffed and stilted—too many words are used to describe the action, to convey the emotional drama. This is an understandable challenge: it often takes a good bit of descriptive verbiage to capture the nuance that an actor can achieve with a slight gesture.
Less forgivable, though, is that the tone of much of the narrative seems to aim for the preternaturally “cute.” There’s an over-abundance of adjectives and adverbs, simple over-writing, and consistent over-reaching for a child-like insouciance. This is a common stylistic misstep for beginning children’s writers, but should not characterize the work of such an accomplished writer as Inman (he’s a well-published fiction and screenplay writer, as well).
So, the story is a lot of fun, and with a severe editing, it would make a strong children’s book, but more likely of picture-book, than of chapter-book, length.
Tony Crunk of Birmingham is a widely published children’s writer and poet.