Reviews: Time Travelling with a Hamster; Dreaming the Bear; Little One

Children’s book reviews by Robert Dunbar: memory building and bear tales that replace cute with wisdom

The timing could not have been better. Just as Einstein and some of his theories on gravitational waves were once again hitting the headlines along comes an extremely clever and totally engaging children’s novel deriving ultimately from these same theories. This is Ross Welford’s Time Travelling with a Hamster (HarperCollins, £6.99), an object lesson in how the scientific and the literary can be made to blend entertainingly and informatively and in the process create an enjoyable work of fiction.

Set in an attractively evoked coastal area in the north east of England, Welford’s novel is, in essence, a variation, often very touching, on the relationship between a father and son. Hundreds of children’s novels have dealt with such a theme but the novelty here is to place the story within the context of a “time travel” narrative while simultaneously firmly anchoring it in the setting of what would seem to be an “ordinary” family. Much of the book’s humour lies in the characterisation of the various family members and their sharp, often witty, exchanges. The occasional use of local dialect makes its own colourful contribution.

On his 12th birthday the wonderfully named Albert Einstein Hawking Chaudhury receives a letter from his dead father, an engineer called Pye. (Think Pythagoras.) He receives also, from his mother, the hamster, named Alan Shearer, whose role is, perhaps, less than its inclusion in the book’s title might suggest.

The letter, apparently from the grave, comes in the form of a request, namely that young Al find his way back to the time machine on which his father had been working before his death. The basic intention is to explore the possibility that history can be, or might be, altered: might fatal accidents be avoided?

The boy embarks on his mission with enthusiasm and ingenuity, his dogged determination giving rise to a number of brilliantly imagined set pieces and dramatic scenes. The switches between the book’s “now” and its frequent excursions into the past are skilfully handled, though Al’s occasional fondness for deserting his first person narrative in favour of the making of lists – “Twelve things I know about Grandpa Byron” – loses its novelty fairly quickly.

There is a sense, though, that we can never know quite enough about this particular Grandpa. Eccentric and encyclopaedic in his mastery of fact and figures, lover of TV quiz programmes, Byron – part Punjabi by birth – dispenses the wisdom of Anglo-Indian age and experience and emphasises the significance of memory. “Our memories make us who we are,” he informs Al as the book ends. The boy’s time travel adventures and his encounters with matters of philosophical and scientific concern should ensure that, as adulthood beckons, his memories are rich and numerous.

Bears of all shapes and sizes have long had a well-established place in children’s literature, their presence ranging from the cuddly and benign to the threatening and hostile. With fiction which concentrates on the relationship between animal and human there is the risk of mawkishness impinging on the narrative but a novel such as Mimi Thebo’s Dreaming the Bear (Oxford University Press, £6.99) shows how, with delicate handling, such a danger can be avoided. The delicacy here lies principally in Thebo’s portrayal of her snowscape background, America’s Yellowstone National Park, where her teenage heroine, Darcy, is forced to spend a period of recuperation following a serious illness.

Darcy’s meeting with a hibernating grizzly bear and their evolving friendship provides the material for most of the narrative. But at least as important are the psychological effects of the meeting on Darcy herself. Quite simply, Darcy needs the bear and the bear needs Darcy. We watch her grow into a much more trusting, self-assured young woman. We see her adopt new perspectives on her parents, on her older brother and on “the enigmatic Tony Infante”. But above all we witness the love which can develop between wounded animal and wounded human and how shared understandings can help to assuage the pain of both.

Jo Weaver’s Little One (Hodder, £11.99) is a remarkable picture book debut, equally remarkable in its text, illustration, overall design and choice of quality paper. At its centre is a heart-warming story of maternal love, portrayed in the relationship between a mother bear and her child. Starting with the coming of spring and progressing through the seasonal cycle, the lyrical narrative takes the form of a series of revelations and discoveries as the mother introduces her offspring to the awe-inspiring beauty of their natural world. “There is so much to discover in your new world, Little One,” says Big Bear. The tender intimacy of the bond between mother and cub is caught in Weaver’s beautifully nuanced and evocative prose.

The quality of Weaver's prose is more than matched by the stunning artwork which takes the form of a sequence of detailed charcoal drawings. These become attractively executed studies in black and white, their detail capturing the seasonal exchanges which are an integral part of the narrative. The muted greys and whites of the endpapers set the tone, preparing us for what is a sort of pictorial symphony, comprising a suite of movements which return us eventually to the "warm darkness of the place called home". As an example of how to harmonise the verbal and the visual to create a memorable picture book Little One sets the bar very high indeed.

Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books

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