Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Is quaintness enough?

I requested Topsy Turvy Tales by Charlotte Boulay-Goldsmith and Laura Hyde when it was offered to the Book Foxes for review because I like  illustrated poetry, and I was rather impressed when the package arrived in the post. They had asked if I’d be OK with an e-book version or a pdf file first, but sent the book anyway, shrink-wrapped and sealed with a demure red blob of wax, stamped with the insignia of Humpty-Dumpty Publishing. Twee name, nice style. There was also a hand-calligraphed card for me, another nice touch. So much attention to detail, and to the artwork, boded very well indeed. So what have we got inside all this packaging?

The book is slim, a cloth-bound largish hardback, containing four illustrated poems, of a few pages each. Hmm. Seems meagre. Poem one: Quest Of a Head, in which a girl with her eyes closed wakes up to meet her lover, who squeezes her so hard the head falls off, and she and the body squabble over what to do with their lives, finally joining together again so they can have the lover as a real girl. Hmm. Poem two: Girl with the Liquid Eyes, in which a girl cries so much that her eyes are a perpetual fountain of grief and love. Poem three: Chester the Oyster, in which an oyster believes he has to keep his pearl protected from the world, and when he finds that it’s a dud he gets married. Poem four: The Man with the Stolen Heart, in which a man’s heart is so stuck to the heart of someone else that he takes both, and then has to marry the owner of the new one. So much marriage, so much togetherness in one small book feels kind of sticky.

These aren’t so much stories as incidents, and they leave me pretty cold. I wasn’t warmed, enthused, interested, or intrigued, because the poems resigned me to cliché and a predictable narrative line. There was very little to surprise me in these poems, and, despite what their website claims, they certainly did not ‘stretch my imagination with quaint delight’.

Just who is this book aimed at, anyway? Its appearance suggests early YA, or staggeringly sophisticated 10 year olds. The darkness of the themes, and the tone of the poetry suggests Edward Lear rather than anything more frivolous and lightweight, but the quality is sub-Lear, which children do notice: my 14 year old was outraged at how limp it was. Words are slapped in just for the rhyme, with no sustained imagery or mood. The rhythms are sacrificed to self-indulgent word use without tying them into the  meaning: I didn’t find ‘druthers’ quaint, just annoyingly obscure. The subjects are certainly not child-interesting: love, sacrifice, longing, passion, heart transplants; not really. I was irritated by the typos: ‘bare’ for ‘bear’, twice? ‘Peaked’ for ‘peeked’? If this had made poetic sense, no problem, but words count three times as much in poetry as in prose. Compressed imagery needs every word to be exactly right, so careless proofreading causes a blaring, glaring visual noise.

The artwork is much better, pretty much carrying the book by its technique and imagination. I was relieved to see that the poems relinquished their grip on the pages occasionally to allow the art to take a single line and spread it lavishly over a double-page spread, really working on sound and image together, but this didn’t happen often enough. The illustration style also kept changing, from classic pen and ink Gothic out of Tove Jansson by Chris Riddell, to a rather clunky collage and found-object style that I didn’t like as much. Looking at Laura Hyde’s illustrations blog, I absolutely loved her stuff there, so perhaps the poetry in Topsy-Turvy Tales cramped her style.

I applaud the project, I want to see more of Laura’s Hyde’s art, I wish they had done more proofreading, and I really hope Humpty-Dumpty’s poetry-and-art books continue.

Charlotte Boulay-Goldsmith and Laura Hyde, Topsy Turvy Tales (Humpty-Dumpty Publishing, 2012), ISBN 978-0-9571560-0-5.

Kate podcasts weekly about books she really likes on Why I Really Like This Book, Really.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher, and publisher (, in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

3 comments on “Is quaintness enough?

  1. Jackie
    July 25, 2012

    Laura Hyde’s art is certainly original, her website is interesting. This book sounds like it had a lot of potential & it’s unfortunate that it didn’t live up to it. I wonder if the book was just to explore a few ideas the author had and not really intended for a mass market? I can see how a certain kind of person would like these ideas, not a wimp like myself, but someone who likes the weird side of live or just pushing the envelope.

  2. sshaver
    July 25, 2012

    I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna, but I worry about too much unremitting darkness in YA literature.

    Part of being older should be saying to the young: It’s bad. But it’s not that bad.

  3. rosyb
    July 26, 2012

    I like different and quirky and the idea of this sounds great. And it’s nice to see someone doing something with the printed book, not just digital content. And making something of that. However, it you are going to charge such a huge amount of money for a hardback printed book, you (the buyer) are looking for a lovely object and it shouldn’t really have lots of typos.

    Perhaps the typos wouldn’t matter quite so much in a different kind of context, but when this book is highly expensive and supposed to be a designed object I can see that could really jar – also it’s the thing that someone could be employed to sort out the easiest. Such a shame. As you say, poetry is about each measured word which just magnifies the problem in a way that might be less bothersome in a longer book or in fiction (not that it’s great in any context but you know…)

    I do like surreal flash fiction sometimes, and this sounds a little similar. I wish they had an excerpt online to take a look. I wish them luck as, like you, I like the sound of what they are trying to do.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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