“Pure joy” – Bumble & Snug return in The Excited Unicorn

Bumble & Snug and the Excited Unicorn,
Mark Bradley,
Hodder Children’s Book

The titular unicorn isn’t the only one who is very excited here – I’ve been eagerly awaiting a return to Bugpopolis (population 8,956, 012 with 6,282 hat shops, and 1 punctured blimp), ever since reading the first of Mark Bradley’s utterly delightful graphic novels for younger readers (see the review posted here last summer),our resident children’s book wizard has been desperate to nab the early copy I was kindly sent, and more than a few of our regular younger readers in our little Indy bookshop are waiting for it to appear. So, y’know, no pressure on Mark there at all!!

In the first volume we learned that there were a number of interesting areas surrounding Bumble and Snug’s home city of Bugpolois, including the Sleeping Giant Mountains, She Sells Seashells Bay and – oh yes! – the Unicorn Forest! I think you can quite possibly hazard a guess as to where our duo of bestest friends are going to be heading for their trip…

Bumble, as always, is a dynamo of enthusiasm and excitement (coupled with impulsiveness), while Snug tends to think it out a bit more; this manifests itself even in simple things like poor Snug not getting a chance to pack for their trip because Bumble is so hyped up she just can’t wait to get there, grabbing Snug and zooooom! Off they go! She even explodes out of the picture frame! The Unicorn Forest is brought to life in fabulously surreal, brilliantly colourful life, like Mark is channelling Willy Wonka via an explosion in a magical sweet store. We get close up panels and lovely double-page splashes of this magical place, including the Sherbet Fountains and Candy Caves – not to mention the super-rare Jelly Bees!!

It’s this last part where our chums come unstuck – as Bumble uses her abilities to change shape to lift Snug up to sample the jelly, they inadvertently startle the Jelly Bees, and find themselves being chased by a horde of sweet-making but very angry insects. Until they are magically transformed into colourful balloons – enter our eponymous unicorn, and new pal for Bumble and Snug, Sparklehoof. Sparklehoof saves our intrepid pair by magically changing the bees. Our new unicorn chum is terribly excited to meet them and to become friends (the other unicorns don’t much care for Sparklehoof).

Sparklehoof seems to have a dash of both Bumble’s over-excitement and enthusiasm, with some of Snug’s instinct to help people in trouble. Not bad attributes, of course, as long as, like everything in life, you don’t get too carried away for too long. And as our new buddies decide to use Sparklehoof’s magical powers to become superheroes and help people, it seems like a terrific idea. And, at first, it is, they dash around in their new superhero costumes, sorting wrongs, helping out people in Bugpopolis, until they get too carried away. In fact Sparklehoof gets so carried away that an onslaught of “help” is soon causing huge problems in the city, not least a giant kitty (shades of the Goodies and Kitten Kong for those of us of a certain age!).

I’m not going to spoil any of the story by going into it any further here – besides which, like the first book, this is one of those comics where summarising the plot really doesn’t do it justice; Bumble and Snug have to be experienced! Mark’s artwork is an utter delight to the eyes – lovely, clear work, colourful without overloading the senses (except when required for certain scenes!), and with a nice flow from smaller, four panel pages to large double-page spreads. It’s all designed to appeal to the reader, more specifically the young reader, to catch their eye, fill them with interesting details to spot but without over-complicating it which could confuse their reading (a task much harder than it sounds for any artist, especially when creating work for younger readers).

As with the first book there are extras, encouraging youngsters on how they can make their own Bugpops, draw Bumble and Snug, and also, once more, talking about the emotions in the story, and how important feelings are, but also how we need to understand them and be aware not everyone around us feels the same way we do all of the time (all gentle but nice lessons for developing minds). But mostly this is just pure, unadulterated joy, even for us boring, old grow-ups. It’s even more fun than a bouncy castle on top of a jelly trampoline!

The format is also nicely designed for little hands – it’s perhaps just a little smaller than the average manga digest size, something kids can easily carry around with them or stuff in their backpacks. It’s also super-fun for adults who still keep in touch with their inner child too! Can’t recommend this enough for anyone looking for good reading material for their kids! A great mix of fun, adventure, feelings and cake! Honestly, I am smiling just thinking about the book as I write this! Joyous!

Bumble & Snug and the Excited Unicorn will be published by Hodder Children’s Books on July 21st; this review was originally penned for Down the Tubes.


Reviews: Summer in the Shade

Summer in the Shade,
Directed by Alice Millar,
Starring Niamh Walter, Nyobi Hendry, Rebecca Palmer, Zaqi Ismail

It’s the summer of 1997, and best friends Grace (Niamh Walter) and Asta (Nyobi Hendry) are going with Asta’s mother, Kate (Rebecca Palmer) for a break in Cornwell. It sounds like an ideal piece of childhood fun, a little while away with your bestie, free from everything else. But Niamh is dealing with problems, not least that her father has left her and her mother (the trip may be as much to give her mother some space as it is to give Grace a holiday). In fact her father is glimpsed only at the start, reading her a bedtime story – Penelope waiting for the return of Odysseus, which turns out to be prescient given his departure soon after.

Added into this emotional stew, the girls are approaching their teen years, and are in that strange, liminal space, still children for the most part, but adolescence and puberty are beckoning; they still want to play games like kids, but they’re also starting to talk about boys and sex, in that hushed, overheard-in-the-playground half-truths many of us will remember from those early years. One foot still in childhood, the other stepping very uncertainly into becoming older but not quite sure where to step or where the path leads. Millar and her young cast capture that feeling very well, that urge to be seen as more grown up while still partly wanting to hold onto elements of your childhood, something we’ve all been through. Even the mis-en-scene quietly, effectively evokes this as the camera circles Grace’s bedroom, a mix of childish interests any young girl of the time could be into, but also hints of interest in older age elements, like make-up; it’s a small touch, but effective, and also signals that tiny budget or not, there’s a lot of care and attention gone into the production.

While the girls play and talk – Grace is going through a religious phase and Asta enjoys spooky, supernatural stories, and these bleed into their imagination and play – what seems like a carefree break in the countryside slowly reveals the fault lines below each person’s emotional life. Even Kate, the Bohemian mother of Asta, who seems to radiate a positive, easy-going confident demeanour, has relationship problems. We’ve all had that feeling that that other people around us seem to have this life thing figured out much better than we do, although we all know that really everyone has problems; Palmer’s performance brings that out nicely, just a few cracks here and there subtly signalling that really she’s going through the same as everyone else, everyone has problems, that’s just life.

Zaqi Ismail’s Sid joins the small cast in Cornwall, sleeping rough in a little forest den the girls had made, after a misunderstanding by the girls (letting their imaginations out of control), Kate invites him to stay with them for a while, and he soon establishes a friendship with each of them, but of course introducing a man into this female environment also adds to the emotional complexity – it starts to become clear that Kate, more emotionally vulnerable than she at first appears, is drawn to Sid, and while Grace is too young, she is, perhaps, just old enough to feel some little pangs of jealousy when she sees Kate flirting with him.

While much of this is a coming-of-age tale (especially for Grace), the inclusion of the problems of the adults nicely balances this, hinting that it’s not just the adolescents struggling to know what they want, how to get it, how to act, who to be with, that’s just a life problem regardless of your age, and perhaps we shouldn’t beat ourselves up so much about it. You could also read Summer in some of the terms of a horror film – it’s not a horror, per se, but it uses some elements and stylistic riffs quite effectively, evoking echoes of British folk horror, which works very well, all nicely done in a fairly low-key way through good cinematography and soundscape use. An effective and emotional directorial debut; I look forward to seeing more work from Millar.

Summer in the Shade is streaming online now.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films