This is the story of a little brown pig called Esmeralda who lives happily with a kind lady called Mrs Harbottle. Unfortunately Mrs Harbottle only owns half of her. The other half belongs to her ex-husband, Mr Harbottle, who is not so kind. One night the local roughs, the Swiggins Brothers, steal Esmeralda and take her away in a pokey sack. Rose and Billy, the children from next door, go after them on their bikes and Mrs Harbottle phones the police. Can Esmeralda be rescued before Mr Harbottle turns her into sausages?
As you might expect from an Allan Ahlberg offering, this is a quirky tale which contains all those elements that Ahlberg does so well, namely a high speed chase, droll humour, surreal elements and stereotypical 'baddies'. There is even a budding romance, which reminded me a bit of the Ahlberg classic, Burglar Bill. No doubt children will be amused by the description of Mr Harbottle, who has eaten so many sausages that he has started to look like one - "a sausage with a hat on...and a bristly chin."
The introduction to this book is rather unusual. Allan Ahlberg addresses the reader directly, "Dear boys and girls, thank you for reading the first sentence of my book (or listening to it, perhaps.) The first sentence is often the most difficult to think of, we writers find, whereas the second, as you can see (or hear) is usually much easier."
The author then reassures his young readers that the story is going to have a lot of 'good words' in it. He goes on to list some of the words he will be using, as well as naming some of the characters. It gives the reader a quick sketch of what to expect from the book without giving the story away and I suppose it could be a good way to inspire curiosity. For example, some children might be intrigued to discover how words like 'hippopotamus', 'bucket' and 'underpants' might find their way into the story. However, I suspect that some children will just fidget through the introduction and want to get on with the story.
What becomes clear is that this is not just a book about a kidnapped pig but also a book about someone writing a story about a kidnapped pig. This is quite a clever device because it makes children aware of the author's role and the craft of writing, understanding in a very basic way how the author goes about the creative process and puts a story together. I feel that this is something that will be relevant to those children old enough to write their own stories, but a tad frustrating for those who just want to follow the story of Esmeralda.
Throughout the text there are little asides from the author. He will interrupt the narrative to make comments about particular words he has chosen. For example, "At this point (I almost forgot) a number of excellent words (and noises) now made their contribution to the story." Personally, I find these asides a bit distracting. It can be hard enough for some children to concentrate on the story without the narrator going off at tangents. I therefore would not recommend this book for those with poor attention spans.
Ahlberg also has a fondness for footnotes in this story. For example, when we reach a point in the story where Mr Harbottle is finishing a plate of sausages in the pub, there is a footnote which reads, "with mashed potatoes and caramelized onion gravy." Whilst the addition of footnotes may make the reading experience more fun and unconventional for some children, providing 'hidden' extras, others may just not understand the point. Why does there need to be a footnote? What some will find quirky and fun, others will find pointless and a bit irritating, breaking the flow.
Older children would probably appreciate the humour though, particularly the conclusion to the story when Ahlberg talks about the words he could have used in the story but didn't. I appreciate he is sending out the message that words are fun and the creative process is fun and is encouraging children to experiment with a few chosen words in their own writing just to see what they can do with them. He even manages to make the point that sometimes the ideas you start with don't go anywhere, which is positive as it shows children that even professional authors aren't perfect.
Maybe older children will find it amusing that Ahlberg gets to the end of the story and realises he forgot to put a hippopotamus in it. Other children might not 'get' this at all and just feel a bit disappointed that a hippopotamus was promised and not delivered. But then on another level, a hippopotamus is delivered. By referring to the lack of a hippopotamus in the story, Ahlberg paradoxically makes the hippopotamus a part of the book. It adds a surreal touch to the book that I find rather endearing and wacky, but which could be taken by some as just another red herring, way too complicated for a young child to get her/his head around.
The actual story of Esmeralda is entertaining, albeit some children might be a bit upset by the idea of a cute little pig being taken away and made into sausages. Not everyone will be impressed by the actions of Mrs Harbottle either, who hits her no-good ex-husband on the nose with a spoon. As the villain of the tale, many might think he jolly well deserves it, but if you don't want your children to read books that seem to condone violence, this might be a consideration. Also it perhaps does not present the custody battle in a particularly dignified way, which is perhaps unfortunate when many young readers will have experience of parents splitting up.
However, there are some wonderfully comic moments, such as people blundering around in the darkness and getting tangled up with washing lines and the inept crooks taking forever to draw a line round the pig's middle and saying, "Does that look like half to you?" The illustrations (by Allan Ahlberg's daughter, Jessica) are expressive and complement the text very well. I particularly like the way that the pictures of the various parties giving chase are made to snake around the text on the page, complete with red arrows to show the direction they are running in, so that readers can follow the events from the illustrations as well as from the words.
In my opinion, the main problem with this book is that it is the story of a mad cap chase to capture a pig and the fast paced nature of the chase is lost somewhat when it is interrupted by the author's various asides and foot notes. Also, whilst I applaud Ahlberg's efforts to inspire his readers to write stories of their own, I don't think they need to be told in such a heavy handed way that there are brilliant words out there and that writing stories can be fun. Enjoying the story is the only inspiration they need and ironically by over-stressing the role of the author and the craft of story-telling, a very exciting story becomes less engaging.
I do still like this book for its sense of fun and inventive qualities. Budding young writers and kids who are becoming fascinated by words will probably like it but those who just want a bedtime story might be less keen. I admit it is not my favourite Ahlberg book, but he never fails to be imaginative and unpredictable in his story-telling, which is always a treat.