Mr Ape (by Dick King-Smith)

Any time I go into a charity shop, I glance at the children’s fiction, and often pick up classic picture books, or longer books by authors I like. I’ve been keen on the late Dick King-Smith’s writing since I first came across some of his books when my sons were small, some twenty-five years ago. He was a farmer before he started writing, and had an excellent way with words: gentle humour, a great deal of anthropomorphism, and enjoyable stories.

One of the books I picked up at some point was ‘Mr Ape’. I hadn’t ever read it, but this morning my three-year-old grandson asked me to read it to him. He enjoys longer stories with a few line drawings; I’m not always certain he understands everything, and sometimes he decides after a few chapters that a book isn’t very interesting. But this one piqued his interest, and over the course of the day I read the whole thing. At 127 pages it took me well over an hour in all, divided into about three sessions.

Mr Ape isn’t, as I had thought, a monkey of some kind, but an elderly man who lives on his own in a large stately home. He loves animals, but his wife had never allowed him to have any, and he went along with her wishes for a peaceful life. Now his children have grown up and left home, and his wife has decided to leave him. It’s not a very auspicious start to a children’s book, but it’s only mentioned in passing.

We meet Mr Ape - a nickname, formed from the initials of his three impressive names - when he’s moved his bed to the warm and spacious kitchen, and has closed off the fifteen upstairs bedrooms as well as most of the living areas downstairs. He cooks for himself, mostly the kind of food he liked as a child, and has decided that it would be a good idea to keep some hens, so that he doesn’t have to buy any eggs.

This leads him to selling all his furniture, and making his former drawing room into a large and comfortable home for a dozen hens… and this is just the start of his venture into animal-keeping. Along the way he meets the Romany travellers Joe and his son Jake, both of whom love animals, and whom he employs to look after the extensive gardens, eventually becoming very friendly with them.

Each chapter is somewhat complete in itself, as Mr Ape gradually acquires more and more animals, until about two-thirds of the way through when an enjoyable party turns into a disaster that changes the course of his life.

It’s not the kind of book I’d have expected a three-year-old to enjoy, but my grandson was mesmerised, repeatedly asking for ‘another chapter!’ each time I finished one and paused for breath. The writing is good; I skipped a couple of words here and there, and one or two over-lengthy descriptions, but overall I liked the book very much.

Recommended to fluent readers, or as a good read-aloud for any child who likes to listen to this kind of book. There are simple line drawings every two or three pages, and the chapters are fairly short (there are thirteen in all) with a good pace, and an exciting climax. I read the last six chapters in one sitting, as I wanted to know what was going to happen.

(In between first reading the book and publishing this review, my grandson requested 'Mr Grape' to be read to him several more times... and it continued to be enjoyable, if somewhat less so on repeated re-readings over several days)

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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