44 Tiny Secrets

44 Tiny Secrets
Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King
Little Tiger

There are actually even more secrets than the 44 tiny ones in the title of this captivating book and some of them are pretty big ones.

Betsy Bow-Linnet is the daughter of two internationally famous concert pianists who spend a fair bit of their time jetting off to play abroad leaving young Betsy in the care of her Grandad.

Betsy has set her heart on becoming famous like her parents but no matter how hard she practises, she lacks the natural talent of her mother Bella and father, Bertram and feels she’s a disappointment to them both.

One day she discovers a letter on the doormat bearing only her name. Inside she finds a letter written by one Gloria Sprightly. The woman claims she has a special method that will make Betsy’s next performance ‘completely, totally, stupendously stunning’ and it isn’t necessary that the two of them meet. The other requirements are that the Method is a secret, and plenty of pumpkin seeds.

Needless to say Betsy jumps at the opportunity and posts off her acceptance right away.

Another letter follows instructing her to look inside the parlour piano and to await a parcel.

Sure enough, the following morning on the doorstep is a large parcel inside which is a box containing the titular tiny secrets in the form of 44 pygmy mice.

Betsy is baffled: how can the tiny reddish-brown creatures help her improve her piano playing and how can she possibly keep all those mice a secret?

Moreover, who is this Gloria Sprightly?

Woven into this quirky story are some wonderful verbal images: Betsy’s mother has a particular penchant for ferns and there are pots of the things everywhere in their home. She even looks and smells like a fern we’re told.

Before the end there are some unexpected revelations of more than one kind and the sharing of some rather yummy cream cakes but all ends happily. Not ever after however for there’s promise of a new story of Betsy and her 44 rodent friends coming soon. Hurrah!

A delight through and through, made all the more so by the splendid visuals provided by Ashley King whose offbeat illustrations underscore the humour of Sylvia’s telling.

Madame Badobedah / A Sea of Stories / Zippel: The Little Keyhole Ghost

Madame Badobedah
Sophie Dahl and Lauren O’Hara
Walker Books

This is a rather longer than usual picture book story of an unusual older woman and the young narrator, Mabel.

Mabel lives at The Mermaid Hotel an establishment managed by her parents. She’s an only child with a fertile imagination and a thirst for adventure and here she acts as narrator of the tale of what happens when a certain rather unusual guest arrives. Not only does the woman have twenty-three bags, two large trunks, lots of jewels and a dressing table but also two cats, two dogs and a tortoise, oh! and a penchant for toffees too.

So high-handed is her manner that Mabel takes an instant dislike to her, naming her Madame Badobedah and deciding she’s a villain. Donning her large raincoat, hat and sunglasses the girl becomes Mabel the Spy.

One Saturday morning the strange guest invites Mabel into her room for tea.

We learn that Madame Badobedah had long ago come across the sea on a big ship to escape war and had once been a ballerina – hence the jewelled tiara.

Gradually as this rather unlikely friendship blossoms we learn more about Madame Badobedah – she’s ready to apologise when she thinks it’s due, enjoys visiting the mermaids,

and also has some secrets that she wants to keep to herself. I love the way Sophie Dahl’s narrative gradually reveals things about the lonely Irena (as we discover is her real name) but leaves plenty of gaps for readers to fill in for themselves.

Lauren O’Hara captures the inherent warmth of the story in her deliciously whimsical illustrations that are just perfect for the quirky telling.

Another story about an intergenerational friendship is:

A Sea of Stories
Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Paddy Donnelly
Stripes Publishing

Young Roo loves to visit her grandpa who lives in a cottage beside the sea with Bathsheba, his ancient cat and a large collection of Bits-and-Pieces he’s accumulated over the years.

Grandpa has a garden that has become overgrown and wild, the ideal place for a game of hide-and-seek when she goes to stay for a few days. When he gets tired there’s nothing he likes better than to sit in his favourite armchair and tell stories to Roo; stories inspired by the objects in his collection.

They all relate to the hidden cove at the bottom of the cliff, a place that Grandpa’s legs won’t carry him to any longer on account of the ‘rambly-scrambly path’ that leads down there.

On her final night at Grandpa’s Roo turns her wish for a way to bring Grandpa and his favourite cove back together into a plan; a plan that the following day is brought to fruition.

Highlighting the importance of sharing stories, this unusual story is both warm and infused with a delightful quirkiness.

Zippel: The Little Keyhole Ghost
Alex Rühle, trans. Rachel Ward, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Andersen Press

One day after the holidays Paul returns home from school and gets the surprise of his life: a voice comes from the keyhole when he inserts his key and it turns out to be a tiny ghost claiming he lives in the keyhole.

He names the being Zippel; but later on that same day he learns that the lock on the front door is to be replaced in just three days.

Later that evening Paul’s parents leave him alone and go to a meeting. Immediately the lad informs Zippel and the race is on to find the enormously inquisitive ghost (with an interest in everything including toilets) a new home before the three days are out.

With smashing Axel Scheffler colour illustrations and absolutely full of delicious wordplay and puns, not to mention Zippel’s rhymes, this warm-hearted story about discovering friends in the strangest of places is fun around Halloween especially, but worth reading any time.