Sadie the Airmail Pilot by Kellie Strom

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Sadie the Airmail Pilot by Kellie Strom

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Category: For Sharing
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Wonderful pictures, OK story but dreadful text: Bookbag's heart was torn, but ultimately we can't recommend this book but it is worth borrowing for the artwork.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 32 Date: February 2007
Publisher: David Fickling Books
ISBN: 978-0385605069

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I was in a true conundrum about Sadie the Airmail Pilot. In fact, I still am as I am writing this review. It's rarely that one meets a picture book in which the contrast between the picture part and the text part is so huge.

At first glance, Sadie the Airmail Pilot looks really good. Solid hardback edition, quality semi-gloss paper, rich colours; and lavish, wonderful illustrations.

I really loved Kellie Strom's artwork: the city as a 21st century one would be imagined by a 1930's author; the rich, colourful, exotic jungle almost smelling of tropical scents; the rocky, ice-covered mountains; even the animal characters (though I am normally not so keen on anthropomorphic animal characters) with lovingly rendered details, from plumage to the pilots' uniforms. There was something of Maurice Sendak in the feel of the illustrations; but they also reminded me of imagery from old books for children I used to read in Poland, ones that might have belonged to my father even; those about faraway lands, incredible futuristic inventions and daredevil characters.

Then, there was the story - a story of Air Mail pilots, flying the dare-devil missions from that fantastic city, over that wondrous countryside; and specifically, Sadie, the little cat who takes the mail to the remote, wind-beaten weather station at Knuckle Point, risks her life to deliver the mail (including the love letters and the shopping catalogue), survives a crash and then gets rescued by a friendly mammoth called Igor only to be immediately sent on another mission by her rather slave-driving elephant boss.

I wondered how many children would be able to identify with or even understand the point of "The winds may blow ice and snow, But still the Air Mail has to go"; and the Chief seemed a singularly slave-driving type of bully. But small children have surprisingly authoritarian minds (c.f. the Fat Controller and the feudal reverence given to him by the engines) so I don't think they would be bothered, though I couldn't stop feeling that Sadie should perhaps refuse to fly another mission before being fed and having a sleep. But (don't laugh) there was a vague reminiscence of Exupery's Southern Mail and a reminder of the romantic, pioneering days of aviation.

Some readers might also worry about the message that seems to preach bravado and praise pressing on with a task whatever the dangers: I personally think that even little children are rather well aware of the difference between what is essentially a fairy tale and real life and won't necessarily attempt to apply such principles to their lives.

All in all, though, the story is OK. It's got the adventure, it's got a sympathetic character (a she cat that oversleeps and tumbles out of her hammock minutes before departure with no time for breakfast); the peril of nature. It falls apart a bit towards the end and the so called moral is arguable, but it would do - it would do if the book didn't fail rather badly in the text execution stakes.

To say it bluntly, the text of Sadie the Airmail Pilot is dreadful. It's not just mediocre and undistinguished, like the committee-written likes of the Disney books or TV tie-ins like the Flowertots Stories, it's positively awful, painful and embarrassing to read.

There is no rhythm which would make it pleasant to read aloud. Sometimes, some sentences rhyme (outside of the purposefully rhymed oaths), but it seems to be completely random and, as often is the case with unintended rhymes or alliterations, makes for a very clumsy sounding text.

The exclamation mark, the ellipse and the dash are overused to the point of abuse, the dialogue is stilted and unwieldy; the attempt at expressing the dynamics of action using sentence structure and punctuation doesn't work. The grammar is suspicious in a couple of places (maybe I am picky or express my foreigners' biases here, though).

The whole book reads like a bad translation from a foreign language, possibly done by a non-native speaker. It also reminds me of another book for children (a Polish one so I can't provide a link), which was written and drawn by the same person and it suffered from similar problems (story was great, pictures OK and the text terrible, and over-punctuated to death). I suspect Kellie Strom is a graphic artist. He should continue to produce and develop his wonderful imagery, but he should get urgent help from a kind editor or a co-author on the text side of things.

The question is, will the children mind? The honest answer is, they probably won't, at first at least. Children don't have conscious mechanisms for prose appreciation and thus it's the story and the pictures that matter to them. Few people develop discrimination in terms of writing quality before late teens, and in most cases it takes rather longer than that. However, it will be the adults struggling to read this book aloud, and squirming on the clumsier sentences. If you feel very tempted by the artwork and the story, borrow this book and use the illustrations as the basis for your own re-telling; but here at the Bookbag we cannot recommend it.

For preschoolers' picture books with outstanding artwork AND good text look for Pumpkin Soup by Helen Cooper, Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak or Jane Yolen's How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight?. For the slightly older child Bookbag recommends The Magic Paintbrush by Julia Donaldson, The Sandhorse by Ann Turnbull or Wood Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land.

Bookbag would like to thank the publishers of Sadie the Airmail Pilot for sending us a copy of the book.

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Jill said:

What a great review. I wonder if there are parents who object much less strenuously to poor text if the illustrations are good - we two are word people, not picture people, aren't we? How do you feel about uninspiring pictures with great text? As strongly or less so?

Children ARE authoritarian. Occasionally, in tellings off, I might ask mine what they consider to be an appropriate punishment, and what they suggest (quite seriously) is without fail worse than anything I had in mind.

Magda replied:


I object less, personally, to uninspiring illustrations than to dreadful text. I feel a bit sad about it, but it doesn't bother me that much. I know for sure, not just speculating, because a lot of Polish books for children are just like that, I suspect it's something to do with how authors are paid?

I don't know why. I am less discerning regarding visuals, probably; it takes 'The Watchtower' style to offend me, and even that I can live with in context.

Also, to me books are by definition about words.

But mainly it's the fact that I HAVE TO READ THE BLOODY THINGS. And as you probably know, it's more painful to read 5 minutes of bad text then 25 minutes of a good one. said:

The author is a he, not a she.

The book is not a translation as, unlike the reviewer, English is his first language.

Sue said:

Thanks for pointing out our mistake about the sex of the author. We apologise for that and it's now been corrected.