Review of the Day: Mokie and Bik
Mokie and Bik by Wendy Orr, illustrated by Jonathan Bean. Henry Holt & Company. $15.95.
Before I begin, I'd just like to point out that when I saw this book I had no intention of picking it up, let alone reading it. But Henry Holt & Company had the mighty clever idea of creating little pamphlets that contained selections from the first chapters of their 2007 titles for the Mid-Winter ALA Convention. I took one glance at the words in "Mokie & Bik" and the next day I walked in the Seattle Convention Center, located their booth, and plucked up this book ASAP. I do not regret this action.
I credit Wendy Orr with launching the surprise sneak attack of the century. As I write this she is by no means a household name. Her books are distinctly Australian in flavor and tend to span no more than 100 pages apiece. Then 2007 rolls around and BAM! She starts hitting the American market left and right. First her book, “Nim’s Island,” gets sold to a big Hollywood studio and will star such luminaries as Jodie Foster. Then the American release of “Mokie and Bik,” comes with an uppercut to the jaw. Yankee child audiences’ll never know what hit ‘em. I would like to warn you here and now that upon picking up “Mokie and Bik,” your average adult reader is going to have one of two reactions to the writing. Either they are going to embrace Orr’s delicious, sing-song use of the English language or they are going to read half a page and disregard it out of cowardice. I’d estimate that a good 25% of the potential adult readership won’t have the sheer moxie to read this aloud to their child, and that depresses me. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen an author take such a wild and wonderful chance with words, phrases, definitions, and pronunciations. This isn’t a verse novel. It’s three times as amusing and creative as that.
Mokie and Bik, girl and boy twins, live out their days on their mother’s boat, scampering about all the live long day. Their father, to hear them tell it, is a parrot with a pirate who has been out to sea so long they’ve almost forgotten what he looks like. So while their mother does her Arting and their nanny Ruby fishes them out of the sea by their overalls whenever they tumble in, these two get into trouble faster than a man could blink. Whether they’re fishing up “eee-normous fisk”, learning to swim (via the old toss-em-in-with-a-rope-around-their-waists method), or walking their saggy soggy dog, these two are making a head-first, devil-may-care, hot-snorting, rip-roaring dive to remain in the pantheon of classic children’s literature. And you know what? You’d have a hard time arguing against it. Pure liquid charm, this book.
Some twins develop a language entirely of their own, and Mokie and Bik seem to fall smartly into that category. What they say can be deciphered eventually, but it takes some doing. You have to understand what it means when the twins say that their father is a “parrot” who’ll come home with “a pirate on his shoulder” and a “treasure on his chest”. So what does the book sound like? Here’s a taste: “They monkeyed off the roof to the slippery wet deck, slip slide slippering in soggy socks, skate chase racing up to Bullfrog’s bow – Mokie was bigger but Bik was faster – and Bik balanced on his sliptoes at the very front point.” The spellcheck on my computer is going bonkers over words like “slippering” and “sliptoes” and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The water patrols sometimes give the twins, “police cream in a cone.” Catching food from the sea is “fisking”.
The worry here is that Orr would get cutesy on you. I know a certain percentage of you out there cringe in the deepest depths of your soul when you encounter a children’s book where the author lets his or her characters intentionally mispronounce something because, to them, it equals automatic funny. But that isn’t what Orr’s doing here, so shake off your cringes and give the book a shot. This is a title that concerns itself with the elasticity of language itself. How far can the author push words and phrases so that they still make sense but come out sounding magnificently mangled in the meantime? Somehow Orr manages, and the result is a book that luxuriates in lines like, “Laddie was a sheepdog, a saggy, shaggy, long licky-tongue dog with brown eyes hiding under his wool.”
This is a book that demands that you read it aloud. And let me tell you, it is mighty hard to read this book to yourself when you’re taking a red eye flight home from Seattle and all you want to do is hear the way Orr’s language bounces off your tongue. Bedtime stories rarely come as sweetly as this. It also pairs beautifully (if on the slightly younger end of spectrum) with Natalie Babbitt’s wonderful, “Jack Plank Tells Tales,” which also has a sea-based harbor feel. And don’t let me forget to mention the evocative pen-and-ink illustrations by Jonathan Bean that capture the flavor of the story. For two twins who are always “overboard or underfoot,” you’d need an illustrator with the ability to convey that sheer unbridled energy. Bean does decently in this respect. It’s a slim pup, coming in at only seventy-some odd pages, but it packs one helluva wallop. Label this one most certainly worth your time and attention.
On shelves June 12th.
Notes on the Cover: Well, in my research (don’t be fooled, as “research” for this blog is usually half-assed and sometimes even a quarter-assed if it’s been a long day) I found alternate “Mokie and Bik” covers out there. Remember, it came out in Australia first. Here’s what it looked like then.
I think I prefer Bean’s work.
You may also wish to check out Wendy Orr’s blog and the now defunct Mokie and Bik blog that ended when the book appeared on Australian shelves.