Reviewed by Gerard Healy
Another great effort by renowned Australian children’s author and illustrator Graeme Base. You may be familiar with his earlier works including ‘Animalia’ (1986), ‘The Eleventh Hour’(1988) and ‘The Sign of the Seahorse’(1992), which were all beautifully coloured and intricately detailed. This one is finely detailed but it’s in black and white, which adds to the tone of this more sombre tale involving vampires, werewolves and spooky castles.
The time is the distant future where robots seem to have replaced humans and the setting somewhere in the Scottish-highlands. The robots behave much like us and they share our emotions of fear, bravery and determination. The main character is Gertie Gif, the lowly cleaning droid from the village of Loch Lan.
The local robots are cursed by a battery-draining laptop known as Voltoid, which lives in a castle on the hill. Like a blood-sucking vampire, Voltoid takes the electrical charge from his victims, leaving them face-down in the mud. Even the local bobby, PC Web, seems reluctant to tackle this creature of the night.
I could see a few links to other tales of a humble, lowly character taking on a difficult challenge, which others decline. There are a few references to The Wizard of Oz; a young female character and her companion dog overcome their fears and meet an enigmatic older fellow in a strange place. Bilbo Baggins and his mate set off on a quest in The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter confronts Voldemont, while Gertie comes up against Voltoid.
Graeme Base is a fine exponent of above-average writing; in this case, the use of two sets of rhyming pairs in each stanza. Each stanza has eight lines and the second and fourth lines, as well as the sixth and eighth lines rhyme. MacSpam- RAM; teeth-underneath and so on. Not an easy structure to maintain over the whole book, in my opinion. Another feature is the frequent use of technology/computer-linked words such as: hard drives, screens and delete and then the very noteworthy use of hybrid words like software-wolves, Franklin Gothic Bold print and an awful, qwerty light coming from the castle. Some real language gems buried in the text for astute readers to find.
The illustrations are a real plus, as they give the reader a detailed picture of each important scene. Base is renowned for leaving numerous, small details around the edges of his illustrations, which add another layer to the story. In this tale, a desk-top mouse looks like a real animal and a flying lap-top resembles a bat-like creature darkening the sky above Loch Lan. It is the sort of book you could introduce to children by just showing the pictures alone and letting them use their imaginations to create a likely story.
Before seeing the age range suggested by the publishers, I thought this clever, finely-detailed text would be suitable for 8-year-old readers and above. However, they suggested 5 plus. Younger readers could certainly enjoy the book, but I don’t think they’d fully appreciate the subtle jokes in the script or perhaps deal with the spooky nature of Voltoid.
Are there some messages in the text for readers? I could think of a few: you can achieve major things with a stout heart and determination. And if you have an ally on a difficult undertaking, even if it is just a pet, then it’s just that little bit easier. Sometimes our collective fears appear larger than they actually are, because we think everyone else has the same heightened apprehension as we do. Then our idea of “hero” isn’t always filled by a caped crusader or person in a leadership role.
The other subtle thought the text nudges into view is the future that Base depicts: one populated by human-like machines but no actual people. Or have all the residents of a future Scotland emigrated to warmer climates and a brighter economy? Perhaps they’ve re-joined the European Union and moved to the continent en masse!
Recommendation: Yes, well worth buying and sharing with younger readers. It would be valuable to discuss some of the illustrations and themes with them as well.
Graeme Base was born in the UK in 1958 and attended Box Hill High School and Swinburne Uni of Technology (which later awarded him an honorary doctorate). He has global sales of over six million copies and he has adapted three of his titles for the stage (writing the book, music and lyrics for each one). He collaborated with Ewan Burnett to create 40 half-hour episodes of an animated TV series based on Animalia, which won a Daytime Emmy for best musical score. He was also awarded the Dromkeen Medal for his outstanding work.
The Curse of the Vampire Robot
by Graeme Base
Harper Collins Australia
34 pp; $24.99 (HB)