Children’s books aren’t necessarily just for children

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Some books are without a doubt aimed only at children. They’re short, the printing is often larger, the language is simple, and they’re not full of sex and violence. But even books like the immortal Winnie the Pooh can be enjoyed by adults. Winnie the Pooh is full of humour that would zip over a lot of kids’ heads. There are plenty of books aimed at younger readers that are just as attractive to older readers in the same way that quite young kids can enjoy books meant for an older audience.

Many adults don’t care that much about labels. I believe one of the biggest audiences for Twilight, a book about a senior high school student being stalked by a hundred-year-old fellow student vampire, was middle-aged women. It’s an excellent example of ‘whatever floats your boat’.

Now before anybody thinks I’m acting all superior and flounces off in a huff, rest assured I’m not being judgmental. I have several confessions of my own to make. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan – and let’s face it, the first book (HP and the Philosopher’s Stone) was a kid’s book aimed at eleven or twelve-year-olds.

Enough has been said about Mister Potter, though, so this post is about a wonderful mash of fantasy and science fiction, all mixed up in a ‘children’s’ book. Mind you, it was written by Sir T. Prachett and I’d read a shopping list if he wrote it.

Three books – Truckers, Diggers, and Wings, together make up the Bromeliad trilogy. Sir Terry is famous for his many Discworld novels but this story is set right here on Earth in fairly recent England. Imagine a large department store like Marks & Spencers in a country town. It’s been around for years but it’s out of date and management have other plans for the site, which will impact a community they don’t even know about.

In a world whose seasons are defined by Christmas sales and Spring Fashions, hundreds of tiny nomes live in the corners and crannies of a human-run department store. They have made their homes beneath the floorboards for generations and no longer remember — or even believe in — life beyond the Store walls.

Until the day a small band of nomes arrives at the Store from the Outside. Led by a young nome named Masklin, the Outsiders carry a mysterious black box (called the Thing), and they deliver devastating news: In twenty-one days, the Store will be destroyed.

Now all the nomes must learn to work together, and they must learn to think — and to think BIG.

Part satire, part parable, and part adventure story par excellence, master storyteller Terry Pratchett’s engaging trilogy traces the nomes’ flight and search for safety, a search that leads them to discover their own astonishing origins and takes them beyond their wildest dreams.

Please understand that ‘nomes’ is not a typo. The nomes are not the gnomes of human fantasy although there is a superficial resemblance. They are about four inches high, very fast and very strong. Humans for them are vast and slow and unintelligible, much like one of the larger herbivore dinosaurs would be to us. The humans don’t see them, don’t know the tiny nomes exist, so they live their lives quite separately, even having minor wars between the inhabitants of various store departments.

When Masklin and his small band arrive in the Store it’s hard to know who is more surprised – the store nomes or the ‘wild’ nomes. There’s much consternation and suspicion about the refugees but eventually Masklin and some of the younger nomes come up with a remarkable plan to escape the Store before it is destroyed.

In the first book, Truckers:

Imagine that all around you, hidden from sight, there are thousands of tiny people.
They are four inches tall, brave, stubborn and resourceful.
They are the nomes.

The nomes in this story live under the floorboards of a large Department Store and have never been Outside. In fact, they don’t even believe in Outside. But new nomes arrive, from – where else? – and they bring with them terrifying news: the Store is closing down and Everything Must Go . . .

And the adventure carries on from there. Although the nomes manage to escape and set up house in a quarry, they’re still not safe. That story is the plot of Diggers.

This is the story of Jekub, the Dragon in the Hill with great big teeth and a great loud voice.

(Well, that’s according to the nomes, but they are only four inches tall.)

When humans threaten their new home in the quarry, the natural thing would be to run and hide. But the nomes have got the wild idea that they should fight back. After all, everyone knows that nomes are faster and smarter than humans, and now they have a secret weapon . . .

Of course, the nomes survive but they’re getting sick of running, so we move on to the last book, Wings.

When you’re four inches high in a world full of giant people, things never go very well for long.

After running into trouble at the quarry, the nomes want to go home. The problem is, ‘home’ is somewhere up in the stars, in some sort of Ship.

Masklin must find a way to get to the ‘launch’ of a ‘communications satellite’ (whatever that is).

And so begins an incredible journey, filled with peril, planes, honking geese . . . and a walking sandwich.

I can imagine some of you wondering what bromeliads have to do with it? Well, in the stories you’ll hear about a tiny, tiny frog that lives in the little pool of water inside a bromeliad perched high on a tree in the Amazonian rain forest. The little frog’s entire galaxy is inside that pool. But if the little frog wants to know if there’s a wider universe out there, it will have to leave its safe pool.

Hey gosh! It sounds like us humans and Mars! Maybe.

By the way, that’s a photo of a small native toad sitting in one of my bromeliads, just to give you a taste for what I’m talking about. The frog in the Amazon is much smaller and the bromeliad is much larger.

The three books are full of delightful jokes and snide parallels. Here’s a quote from Truckers. The store nomes have taken surnames based on which department they live in and the text is taken from The Book of Nome (there’s always a Holy Book).

“I. Woe unto you, Ironmongri and Haberdasheri; woe unto you, Millineri and Del Icatessen; woe unto you, Young Fashions, and unto you, you the bandits of Corsetry. And even unto you, Stationeri.
II. For the Store is but a Place inside the Outside.
III. Woe unto you, for Arnold Bros (est. 1905) has opened the Last Sale. Everything Must Go.
IV. But they mocked him and said, You are an Outsider, You don’t even Exist.

From The Book of Nome, Goods Inward v.I-IV”
― Terry Pratchett, Truckers

Yes, it’s a book for younger readers – as well as for older ones with a sense of humour. The nomes are forced out of their comfort zone and have to learn to live in a hostile world – so hostile it doesn’t even know they exist. And you know, maybe aliens aren’t necessarily human-sized creatures with bulbous heads, huge eyes and no hair…

There’s a thought.

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