I'm very pleased to see that Dave Shelton's A Boy and a Bear in a Bear in a Boat is one of the titles on the shortlist for this year's Costa Book Award! This seems like a good excuse to dig out my review of it, which I posted earlier this year on my other blog, The Solitary Bee.
This is probably the most original cover I've seen on a children's book in recent years, and, happily enough, it's wrapped around one of the most original children's books I've ever read.
Dave Shelton is already familiar to readers of the DFC and The Phoenix Comic as the creator of the ongoing canine-noir detective series Good Dog, Bad Dog and several fine stand-alone strips. A Boy and a Bear in a Boat contains a number of his beautiful illustrations, but it's his first story in prose, and it's a remarkably assured debut.
This is not a book where very much happens. The title pretty much says it all. There is this Boy. And this Bear. And they're in this Boat. That's pretty much it. Where have they come from? Where are they going? We never find out. Why? Again, we are never told. The Bear is the captain of the boat, but his slightly pompous confidence in his own navigational skills seems misplaced; they are quickly lost, and the only map on board is the one on the cover - a pretty unhelpful expanse of plain blue sea.
Of course, events do punctuate the voyage. There are storms (beautifully illustrated storms, at that). A landing upon an abandoned, drifting ship. A sea monster. And a very funny sandwich. It's all described in clear, spare language, and in precise detail: reading it aloud to Sam, I almost wondered if it had started out as an idea for an animated movie. It's a bit like watching a cartoon in your head.
Sam (who's 10) enjoyed it largely for its humour. There are plenty of good slapstick sequences, and the loveable but often incompetent Bear appealed to him, as did the Boy's resourcefulness, and the growing friendship between the two. He thought it was a funny book, and he's right. But reading it as an adult, I sensed something darker going on. Where has this boy come from? He has a family; they are mentioned from time to time. Why has he had to leave them? What is this voyage he is setting out on? And at the end - and I don't think is a spoiler - there really isn't an end: boy and bear sail on hopefully towards the next horizon and the next, but the reader senses that they will never arrive, and that their futile journey will go on for ever.
Are they, I began to wonder, dead? The set-up is instantly reminiscent of Charon the ferryman rowing the spirits of the departed across the Styx and Acheron. Is the boy in Limbo, or some Existentialist afterlife? Is it just a funny story about a boy and a bear in a boat, or is the whole thing an absurd parable about the meaninglessness of life in a Godless universe?
The book drops few hints. It's extraordinarily self-disciplined, resisting any temptation to expand the world of the story beyond its three basic elements. In some ways, it's powerfully depressing. But only for grown-ups. And in a good way! Read it, and see for yourself.
A Boy and a Bear in a Boat is published by David Fickling Books, and is available at good bookshops, or HERE.