8.12.2009

Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken 146pp Rl 3

Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken follows the adventures of Arabel Jones, who finds a raven in her refrigerator one morning - an indicator of his voracious appetite - and names him Mortimer. Set in almost 100 years ago in Rumbury Borough, a small village outside of London, these stories are rich with silly ideas and crazy adventures - like Mortimer's obsession with machines you can put coins into, which necessitates a trip to the newly renovated tube station that has tons of machines, even one that can blow your nose for you. Mortimer also enjoys answering the phone, shoving things under the doormat and/or the linoleum and "packing spaghetti into jam jars or sponge bags or old yogurt pots."

Aiken is capable of the same playful ridiculousness that is found in most Roald Dahl books (her writing here is enriched by the illustrations of Quentin Blake, illustrator of all Dahl's books) but without the self-centered, cruel adults that often populate Dahl's stories. The books are also sprinkled with jokes that parents will get, like Mortimer's continual, well timed cries of "Nevermore." Since ravens are not very common or popular here in America, their smaller, more omnipresent and infinitely less interesting cousins the crows are. Before, or while, reading about Arabel and her alter-ego, Mortimer, you might want to give your kids a little background information about them. Ravens have a historical place in British culture, and a permanent home at the Tower of London, the oldest part of which was built by William the Conquerer in 1078. The Tower of London has been a fortress, a prison and is now the repository of the Crown Jewels. However, most kids probably won't even care about this since Mortimer is infinitely entertaining and even more rambunctious and destructive than a puppy who can never be left alone.

Broken into three stories, my favorite chapter of Arabel's Raven is titled, "The Bread Bin," with a chain of evens which unfolds a bit like a Rube Goldberg contraption. During an extremely wet February Mortimer is cross because he cannot do the two things he wishes to do above all else - be pulled around the garden in Arabel's wagon and sleep in the bread bin. Mrs Jones complains that that bird "gets more attention than the lord Mayor of Hyderabad," and Arabel (who is feeling a bit ticklish in her throat) responds by pulling him around the house on one of her roller skates. Through a series of events, a claw caught in the roller skate leads to an open window (by way of a toppled crate of brussels sprouts and an exploding can of oven cleaner) and a return to the red wagon. Once out the window, "Mortimer took no notice. There were half a dozen horse chestnuts floating in the red wagon. The next-door cat, Ginger, was sitting under a wheelbarrow, trying to keep dry. Mortimer jumped out into the wagon (he was up to his black, feathery knees in water) and began throwing chestnuts at Ginger. He was a very good shot." I am a cat lover, but this paragraph-long sentence made me laugh out loud. Mortimer is a free spirit with no social constraints. He does what he wants when he wants and makes the most of the moment whenever he can. The chapter goes on to involve a hair dryer, a roller rink, Arabel's awful cousins Cindy, Lindy and Mindy, a wild chase in a parking garage with Mortimer skating up and down the ramps. A mix-up with a shopping bag one wheels means Mortimer goes home with the cousins where he is chased mercilessly and ends up hiding out in the chimney. This necessitates the arrival of Mr Suckett, the chimney sweep and ends with Mortimer, followed by a stream of soot, shooting out the window with "the speed of Boeing 707." The chapter ends in the hospital, Arabel's ticklish throat turning into a full blown illness, and Mr Jones sneaking Mortimer into the hospital to be with her - in the very bread bin that he began the chapter being told he couldn't sleep in.

Sadly, out of all the Arabel and Mortimer books, only Arabel's Raven and Arabel and Mortimer are still available to purchase new in the United States. But, I am sure that your library or a good used book site will have them on hand as you will no doubt want to read more about the Jones family and their unusual pet.

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