Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Good afternoon, Brother Donkey. I'm here to place an order for my friend, Miss Manatee."
What?! Miss Manatee, Queen of Calypso...? Brother Donkey's all-time favourite recording artist...?
"She will be performing in the city and will need shoes for her trip onto land."
Why, of course she will need shoes! Wait-what?!
"Here are her measurements. Let me know when her shoes are ready."
Hmmm.... How long do you imagine it will take Brother Donkey, highly respected cobbler, to realise that there's something slightly impractical about a manatee - that huge, beautiful seacow, so gloriously graceful in the water - clomping about in shoes on dry land? Oooh, I wouldn't expect that light to start flashing for a full 170 of these 200 pages! You see, Francis has never travelled outside his village before, so although he may croon enthusiastically alongside her albums, he's not really sure what a manatee is or does.
He's going to have to go on a right old expedition now, however, because although his very best shoes are made from wild tiger grass, purchased each week from a squirrel monkey called Nigel who forages it from deep in the jungle, Francis has just run out of grass and his neighbour Nigel's gone missing! Worst timing ever!
He's ever so trepidatious about venturing into the South American jungle all alone, but he must somehow locate Nigel's source of tiger grass and hopefully find Nigel into the bargain. Fortunately Rhoda the macaw offers to escort Nigel - in exchange for some shoes - and together they set off with their wild animal guide books. Those should be useful; or worrying. Some pages will give Nigel much food for thought, the specific thought being that he might prove to be food!
From Sara Varon (creator of the deeply poignant ROBOT DREAMS much loved by all, plus Young Readers ODD DUCK and BAKE SALE) comes a substantially lengthier graphic novel bursting with colour and novelty. Don't worry, families, you will trot along through it quite quickly if (and it's a really big "if"!) you can bear to leave each page of vibrant eye-candy behind.
Its commendable emphasis lies in kindness, generosity, cooperation, foraging from locally sourced, sustainable resources, fair trade and exchange (a big slapped wrist for Nigel awaits!), the thrill of exploration, adventure and acquiring new skills, keeping an open mind at all times, gratitude and learning. And if your young ones enjoy the pages of Nigel's guide book, may I shoehorn in here recommendations for WILD ANIMALS OF THE NORTH and WILD ANIMALS OF THE SOUTH, each reviewed separately? Thanks very much, I have done so!
Perhaps the first clue for Francis that Miss Manatee might require something other than shoes comes when he and Rhoda need to cross a river. It's no problem for the feathered one, but Francis the donkey has never learned how to swim. Herons, whom they treat to some bread, send the pair upstream to a family of capybara who encourage Francis to get his feet wet. It's then that he notes that shoes aren't particularly good for swimming in.
Their journey has only begun, though, and they're no nearer to finding Nigel until a toucan obliges.
But what they will discover and those whom they encounter at the end of their trek will prove both unexpected and a wee bit frightening, but only because they've been wronged. Nigel has been a very bad boy, and it is up to Francis and Rhoda and Nigel to put things right. At which point I'd remind you about the book's emphases.
But it's never too late to mend (not strictly true, as our planet may pertinently attest very shortly) and all will be well in the end!
The book has been brilliantly thought through from start to finish, and Varon does finish with a photographic flourish: several pages of research she conducted in Venezuela's Guayana.
So how do you imagine will Brother Donkey best equip his idol, Miss Manatee, for her gala performance on stage in the city? That, I will not say, but he will succeed in his commission, for a little lateral thinking does go a very long way.