Our five-year-old granddaughter came to stay, with two of Chris Riddell's Ottaline books under her arm and insisted on having at least one chapter read to her every night at bedtime. I think I enjoyed these books even more than she did - they are quirky, beautifully illustrated and full of bitingly funny satirical comment on the state of modern parenthood. As one would expect from a leading newspaper cartoonist, Riddell delivers some well targeted broadsides at the cult of the career parent who mistakes bought-in services for real nurture.
Riddell brilliantly combines the surreal qualities of Lewis Carroll with the sometimes sinister darkness of Roald Dahl's children's classics to create a magical world where animals talk and a brown bear can emigrate from its lair in Canada to hibernate in comfort behind the washing machines in the cellar laundry room in the tower block where the little heroine lives alone with a hairy bog creature from Norway named Mr Monroe.
Each adventure is a page turner for the target audience but there is a bonus for the adult reader with a sub plot of alienation, abandonment and the sort of neglect that would have parents like Ottaline's under the scrutiny of the social services department. One is left with the uneasy impression that, beneath the surface, this is a story about a neglected child who copes by creating a make believe world inside her own head.
Ottaline's parents are keen antique hunters who prowl the four corners of the world in search of rare and decidedly odd collectables, leaving the tiny girl alone in their apartment with Mr Monroe to dust their rapidly expanding collections. From time to time they send a postcard to Ottaline and the pathos is palpable as she adds it to her own extensive collection of similar communications. Riddell drives home his message by pointing out how much Ottaline loves her postcard collection because it "makes her feel closer to her parents."
She also has a collection of business cards left by her parents - Ottaline is well provided for by local businesses who come in to cook meals, makes the beds, iron her clothes and there is even the "Smith & Smith Pillow Plumping Company" to ensure that she has a good night's slumber. Or could it be that her parents just want to sleep easy?
The theme of the absent parent is continued in Ottoline Goes to School
in which she is sent off to boarding school. The parents of a lonely little school friend are summoned to the head's study for a dressing down because they hardly ever communicate with their own daughter and leave, red faced, with a "must do better" report.
Riddell's illustrations are a joy, especially when they extend to pages of comic strip style storyline. These are books that can be read to younger children but to which they can return when they are old enough to read them themselves - they are books to keep and cherish. The two our granddaughter brought were from the library but she loved them so much that has now requested her very own copies to "keep forever". We will be ordering them from Amazon for her sixth birthday.