Page 45 Review by Stephen
"It took me ages to learn Mandarin."
A deliriously illustrated, all-ages read from the creator of FLUFFY and PLEASE GOD, FIND ME A HUSBAND, I gobbled up this deceptively clever 180-page adventure in a single, giggle-filled sitting.
It's magnificently ridiculous but far from nonsensical, for its howl-inducing comedy is derived from a witty worm logic challenged with deadpan abandon throughout.
We all know what a worm is. We all know what a worm can do. We all know what a worm is patently incapable of doing.
Like learning Mandarin.
French, maybe; but Mandarin is ever so tricky.
The first clue comes when Marcus the mud-loving earthworm introduces himself, his hobbies and his habitat in a cross-section of his burrow.
Of course there's a table tennis room. Of course there is.
The thing is, once you've seen that, you can't help but imagine two worms playing table tennis, and that is Simone Lia's genius.
The same goes for when you read each piece of seemingly random ridiculousness, like when Laurence the corpulent, gullible bird is packing light for their holiday together, and Marcus encourages him to take more and more.
"Well, it's just that... it's a long way and you might get bored. I thought you might need some other things. You know, for entertainment."
"I see. Well, I could take my yo-yo."
And off you go again, your mind's eye agog.
The preparations grow increasingly elaborate / insane given that Laurence is supposed by flying them there. So why is Marcus intent on Laurence encumbering himself with everything bar the kitchen sink? (He even un-plumbs his own toilet - just in case there aren't that many en route.)
Well, Marcus woke up that morning - after a dream about flying a spaceship made from potatoes - to find himself inside a cereal bowl sat between a knife and fork, with a scruffy bird who looks a lot like a chicken fixing him hungrily with big, beady eyes.
And that's not easy to handle; not before your first cup of coffee.
No, when you're a worm staring down the barrel of a peckish-looking beak, it's quite discombobulating. But Marcus proves very quick-witted and resourceful throughout and immediately introduces himself AND HIS FAVOURITE COLOUR AND HIS FAVOURITE HOBBY AND ASKS WHAT THE BIRD'S NAME IS AND DOES HE HAVE A HOBBY, PLEASE, SIR? in a very loud voice and as fast as he can because it's much more difficult to scoff someone up when they're engaging with you personally and ever so politely.
It transpires that the big bird's hobby is travelling. But he hasn't been anywhere - anywhere at all - because he has no sense of direction and is utterly rubbish at map-reading.
I'll just leave that one sitting there.
Ideally he'd like to go to Kenya in Africa to visit his fellow flamingos (!) which is rather ambitious for any first flight but Laurence is convinced that Marcus' subterranean homing instincts will serve them equally well in the air... over the Channel, across Europe, then the Mediterranean and... it's quite a long journey. Maybe they'll stop off in Paris on the way and visit the Eiffel Tower which is pictured on the front of Laurence's guide book.
Anyway, the reason Marcus is setting Laurence up for such a substantial heavy baggage penalty is that he's not sure if he wants to go, but he's inspired by the sincerity of the plump bird's seriously deluded flamingo-fellowship, so they take off for the south.
What follows is a truly epic journey and, if you doubt their combined abilities, there is the most masterful page turn following this:
"As I was pretending to admire the view, I noticed that there actually was a view. And it looked oddly familiar, just like the cover of Laurence's French guidebook...
The next page's image is integral to its punchline.
Without that it wouldn't work, so like Reeve & McIntyre's all-ages PUGS OF THE FROZEN NORTH, OLIVER AND THE SEAWIGS and CAKES IN SPACE, Lia's illustrated prose often verges on comics. It never quite swerves into that medium as far as Gary Northfield's profoundly and exuberantly stoopid JULIUS ZEBRA - RUMBLE WITH THE ROMANS and BUNDLE WITH THE BRITONS but there is a scene wherein Laurence has been kindly leant an ice-cream by a fellow non-flamingo called Bernard:
"Instead of taking one lick - which was what Bernard was offering - he slowly ate the whole thing while staring into space."
The sentence is sandwiched between two sequential images of Laurence's absent-minded yet quite thorough scoffing as poor Bernard watches woefully and silently, increasingly regretting his instinctive generosity.
The main action's depicted in black, white and grey - including a phenomenal shot of the British countryside from above - with orange dedicated solely to worms, one central surprise much later on, and Marcus' self-visualisations and daydreams which elicit extra, absurd, worm-logic laughter.
My favourite example of this double-punchline comes after Marcus (in order to avoid becoming an essential ingredient in worm and chicken stew) fools a mole, a squirrel and crow into believing his uncle was a chef in the hope of sending them out for further essential ingredients which they couldn't possibly collect. One porkie too far and the ruse is rumbled then the mole is furious to have been taken in by the very idea that any worm's uncle could possibly be a chef.
"I couldn't look at the mole. He was right.
"My uncle isn't really a chef;
"he's a waiter."
During any journey there are lessons to be learned, and amongst those on offer are making friends with those you might think are unlikely at first, sticking up for your friends in their hour of need, being proud of who you are and of your friends' best qualities, and if at first you don't succeed, then try, try again.
I'm afraid they don't teach those at Worm School. Sometimes you just have to figure these things out for yourselves. Or read a good book.
This is a Good Book.