Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton-Trent Review

Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton-Trent
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The endpapers of Lauren Child's remarkably droll masterpiece hints at "Chutes and Ladders," the venerable kids' board game where players jump ahead by landing on squares with ladders, and fall behind by landing on those with chutes. It's a subtle metaphor for the overarching class mobility theme that suffuses this superbly written and illustrated tale of riches won, lost, and found again.
The Bobton-Trents are upper class British to their very marrow, and spend their time lavishly entertaining other upper class hyphenates; to wit, the Elfington-Learies, their "next-door-but-one neighbors, the Davenport-Martines," and the Butterworth-Trotters. (Sure, these are easy jokes, but Child's collage drawings and tone are so inventive and "spot-on" that they seem fresh.) Their baby, Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton-Trent (aka "H.") enters this rarified social sphere, and, early on displays prodigal skills in speaking, telephoning his parents (a necessity when you live in a huge mansion, and swimming. While his parents fritter away their time, and, more importantly to the story, their money, "H." and his best friend Stanton Harcourt Saint Bernard, III have fun at their home laboratory, learn obscure Japanese words, and practice table tennis. Lauren Child's madcap interior design encapsulates their idiosyncratic, topsy-turvy lives: The mansion is all squiggly-lined opulence, andthe parents wear wild, textured clothing that matches the wallpaper, and the artsy, modernistic fixtures and decorative look like they might succumb to gravity--or good taste--at any minute. This wealth of artifice, along with the somewhat distant parent -child relationship hint at imminent decline, and that's exactly what happens: The Bobton-Trents spend more than they bring in, and all their servants except the loyal Grimson resign, and even Grimson's loyalty extends only to the next morning. When Stanton Harcourt informs Hubert that the only way out is to sell the manor, Lauren Childs poses the melodramatic questions like the narrator midway through a Rocky and Bullwinkle episode (to which the entire book owes a certain resemblance).
"His parents loved their beautiful mansion. How would they ever cope if they ever found out they were no longer frightfully, frightfully rich?"
"What would happen to Grimshaw?"
"And in any case, where would he put his table-tennis table?"
There's a temporary reprieve when the sporty Bobson-Trents parents every Chinese checker, Scrabble, and Boggle contest they enter, but these good-natured twittish couple soon part with their money. In a too-rapid denouement, the whole family moves to a very tall and much cheaper house right in the city. The parents find more practical ways of enjoying their eccentricities, and Hubert is relieved when he discovers that his parents can live without a fortune, and that he can actually walk to the now-closer parents' room without his cocoa getting cold. Fortunately, `Bobson-Trent' doesn't ask that you take the plot too serious--it's more about style than content--and so the swift resolution is acceptable.
Perhaps in lesser hands, the dry humor, as well as the various fonts, exaggerated perspectives, the mixture of 50's and 60's illustrative styles with Jules Pfeiffer-like rapid line drawings, would seem contrived or gimmicky. However, Lauren Child's wildly satirical tale has a confidence that never looks back. Simply stated, it is one of the most original kids' books I've seen in years, and Child's story and daring illustrations are deeply satisfying. Most elementary- or middle school-aged children will enjoy this slightly askew family, and adults weaned on screwball comedies and the sensibilities of "Bullwinkle" and "Fractured Flickers" comedy will adore this. The book is probably too long for a one-sitting reading, but there are enough episodic breaks that teachers and adults can read it over a few days. Winner of the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, Lauren Child has written over twenty books, and I'm eagerly looking forward to reading them.

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