The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil by Wiley Miller

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The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil by Wiley Miller

Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: Outstanding artwork from a very talented cartoonist and a great adventure plot are marred by dull writing in a what could be a much better book, but is still worth a look.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 128 Date: February 2008
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747588986

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Basil Pepperell lives in a lighthouse on the coast of Maine, in year 1899. You'd assume he's leading a fascinating life, but no, he is very bored by his life which he considers very ordinary. In keeping with the promise of the title, adventure looms and Basil is whisked up into the sky by an eccentric professor in a flying boat. They visit a fantastic city in the sky - it's called Helios, but it's the same place that used to be known as Atlantis, and it's from Helios that all good in the human history originated - from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. As we all know, ordinary non-Helian humans are good just for making war. Alas, an evil science, an outcast from Helios called Von Rottweil, is lurking on the ground, preparing a robotic army and bent on world domination...

Wiley Miller is a cartoonist and a creator of a very successful (and a rather good) comic strip Non Sequitur. Basil Pepperell also started life as a full-colour cartoon strip, to the delight of audiences young and old.

Not surprising, then, that artwork in Ordinary Basil is outstanding: original, quirky, bordering on sophisticated grotesque, in finely detailed line and subdued hues. The pictures have wonderful dynamism and not only capture the facial expressions and characters' individualities but also reflect the mood of each scene, from exuberant joy to spooky (almost Gothic) terror to tired sleepiness.

The adventurous plot is fun, energetic and wonderfully outrageous (though something in me baulked at those Helian super humans), and the evil master plan to dominate earth suitably sinister, while the transformation of Basil from an ordinary boy to something not too far from a superhero is quite gratifying. And I loved the flying dinosaurs!

All in all it would make a brilliant graphic novel.

And thus it's a shame that The Extraordinary Adventures of Ordinary Basil is not a graphic novel, but an 'normal' one: a continuous text comprising a narrative and a dialogue, with illustrations in a supporting role. And the text fails Ordinary Basil. The prose is without much lift or grace and occasionally has a decidedly amateurish feel. It's not dreadful, just a bit dull; but nowhere near the high standard of the artwork.

The book is less than 130 pages in small format and with numerous illustrations, but I actually struggled to finish it, while my 7 year old, who loves fantastic adventures and doesn't have particularly developed aesthetic sensibilities, didn't finish the text - she just looked at the pictures and worked the story for herself.

Basil Pepperell is worth knowing and his adventures are great fun. Other parents don't seem to mind, as enthusiastic reviews on testify. But in my opinion reading should be either a smooth, easy and quick ride or a challenging wonder-filled journey of discovery. This text provides neither.

I suggest you borrow it first or have a good browse. Read a page or two: see if you like how it sounds, if you want to keep reading or would you rather just look at the pictures? And then decide for yourself.

Five stars for the artwork, two for the text from a reviewer torn as to the rating and recommendation, thus averaging a solid 3½.

Thanks to Bloomsbury for sending us the book.

Those - especially girls - looking for quirky illustrations combined with (slightly absurd) adventure should definitely check out Ottoline and the Yellow Cat by Chris Riddell and Ottoline Goes to School. Boys (and quite a few girls) will enjoy Stone Goblins by David Melling.

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