Chris Powling on THE ELEVENTH H0UR OF GRAEME BASE
Graeme Base had his work cut out after Animalia. Remember that? It was an alphabet-book-not, perhaps, the most promising of popular ventures for an artistic debut yet the combination of the exuberant Base captions and his highly-detailed, flairful draughtsmanship met with astonishing success. Who could forget H, for instance…
Horribly Hairy Hogs Hurrying
Homewards on Heavily
…with hogs and horses erupting from the page like illuminations that have taken over the manuscript. No wonder, in BfK 53, Bernard Ashley commended the book to all parents and teachers of infants as being ‘big enough for two laps, for sharing’. He went on:
‘Animalia will be grabbed by both parties – with its alliterative artwork, its pages and double-spreads of invention in a variety of styles, and its game of I-Spy leading to what the dreaded SRA people would be tempted to call “word power boosting potential”. The real point is that after looking through this book the world is seen through new eyes – of the closely observing kind.’
Point taken … by more than 300,000 buyers, world-wide, if we’re to believe the sales figures. What next, then, for Graeme Base?
Not another Animalia that’s for sure. ‘People said “now you’ve got to do numbers”‘ he’s reported as saying. ‘But I couldn’t work to that sort of formula.’ Instead, he’s come up with The Eleventh Hour – published, naturally, at eleven minutes past eleven on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of this year. Here in Britain, that is. Australia, where he’s lived since the age of eight, saw the launch last year. Since then it’s sold 140,000 copies – with initial print-runs of 100,000 planned for this country and the USA. Again, his target is the whole family. He describes The Eleventh Hour as ‘an Agatha Christie-type mystery in pictures’. But with no murders, let it be said. And with Base once again supplying his own text. In this case his medium is verse:
When Horace turned Eleven he decided there should be
Some kind of celebration. ‘For my friends, ‘ he said, ‘and me.
For though I’ve been the age of eight and nine and six and seven,
This is the very first time that I’ve ever been Eleven!
Horace’s celebration, however – a slap-up feast ‘with eleven sorts of food that Elephants like best’, together with eleven games to be played by his eleven guests (including himself) – goes suddenly awry. On their arrival at the banquet-hall as the clock strikes eleven, the guests discover all the magnificent food has disappeared before their very eyes. Well, before our very eyes actually. Because the puzzle the reader has to solve is Which Animal is Responsible? Every double-spread contains clues…somewhere. As can be seen from our front cover, the illustration is lavish and the Base invention boundless: there are codes and ciphers to be cracked, margins to be explored, red herrings to be identified, hidden objects to be discovered. According to the author, the mystery can be explained in at least four or five quite different ways.
And here we’d better pause a moment. There are those for whom this kind of conundrum normally cuts no ice at all. I know, because I’m one of them. For instance, the national Masquerade mania unleashed a few years ago by Kit Williams completely passed me by. I took note of it as a phenomenon – hard to miss it when clever kids at my school spent hours poring over each double-spread – but for me the attraction was nil. If The Eleventh Hour struck the same cryptic note, I’d be stonily indifferent.
But it doesn’t and, much to my surprise, I’m not. There are two reasons for this, perhaps. Firstly, Graeme Base’s approach to illustration – painterly and meticulous though it is – offers much more than a merely technical accomplishment. It’s warm, funny, full of enthusiasm and offers a range of sympathy that’s extraordinarily broad. At one pole we have his animal characters themselves, genuine picture-book creations with none of the record-sleeve coldness of the book’s distinguished predecessor. At the other pole, there’s the Base feel for background – almost every spread hints at a famous setting: the Uffizi in Florence, St Peter’s in Rome, the ballroom in Salzburg where Mozart used to play. .. if you miss them, no matter. If you don’t, a lovely bonus.
Secondly, and just as important, the answer to the riddle really is within the scope of most readers. You’re intended to share it. When the text says…
But in the end, although the thief
was someone they all knew,
They never found out who it was
that stole the feast – can you?
… it’s on your side. Why, even I got it eventually! And a thoroughly satisfactory resolution it is, too – even if I did give up on the further search it provokes. In short, The Eleventh Hour looks suspiciously like another Base triumph. We’ll let you know what Bernard Ashley thinks.
The Eleventh Hour is published by Macmillan (0 333 51867 5, £7.95).