A lion is a lion is a lion, right?
Well yes. Unless…
In Polly Dunbar’s brilliant new book, a dapper, smooth-talking lion tries to cloak his true nature. Donning a fedora and blazer, and twirling a scarlet umbrella, the lion – or is he? – parlays his way into the home of a little girl and her younger brother. Asking after their Auntie Sue, he ‘hoobie-doobie dances’ them around the living room then invites himself to stay for lunch.
He has exquisite manners, this long-whiskered lion, right up until he’s ready for some pudding, whereupon the children suddenly notice that ‘his eyes are bright, and his teeth oh-so-pearly-white, and he looks like he might just… BITE!’
At this point, the drawings – pure joy, more about which later – suddenly acquire a red-for-danger backdrop, and show the children leaping to safety beneath the table. But rather than stay cowering, the little girl suddenly thinks ‘No!’
And with that one, consummately empowering word, she takes her brother by the hand and gives that sly old lion what for.
‘No! No! No! NO!’ she yells, sending him dashing for the door.
Dunbar, best known for her loveable Tilly and Friends series (predictably, the books that pre-date the TV adaptation have infinitely more charm), is one of the few truly brilliant author-illustrators at work today. The expressive pictures in this new book pop with character and zip, and maybe it’s just their zany ink spots and blots but they have about them something of the manic energy of Gerald Scarfe’s cartoons.
What’s so ingenious about the text is the subtlety of its nonetheless insistent message: don’t trust appearances, do not be fooled by fancy ways, and don’t be afraid, either, to stand up to things that seem scary. Yes, a lion really is a lion, but you still have your voice, and it’s a loud, clear voice – your strongest defence, BIG, even when you’re small and feeling smaller still.
It seems really important that children – and yes, girls especially, though we’re all sick of it being so – are encouraged to voice their dissent loud and clear, and that’s just what a clever coda enables when it provides a chance to put the book’s lesson into practice.
Best of all, it’s so much fun to read. If this becomes the book your child needs to hear five – even ten – times over before bed each night, you’re in for a treat. Okay, so it may not be the most restful narrative, but it’s rhythmic and witty and popping with exclamatory bangs, slams, and phews!
And what better way to encourage children to fall in love with language than through phrases such as ‘hoobie-doobie-doo’, as sung by the lion as he skips down the street, or his very efficient way with a dish, eating until it’s ‘gobble, gobble gone’, crockery and all?
One last detail: this book features a ‘lickety-split’, which I happen to think is a word that should be used far more often in literature for the young and the old alike. If you get a sec, please let me know some of your own favourite words and phrases from children’s literature!
A Lion Is a Lion is published by Walker Books at 11.99. Age: 3-5