Book review: Hogart the Hedgehog Turns Nink

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Hogart – at the ancient age of eight-plus-one – must delve into the dangerous night to discover the truth of language and the haphazard collections of sounds we call words. If you worry your child will be befuddled by such deep imponderables, worry not. Written by Hong Kong resident (and New Zealander) Blair Reeve, this is an enormously fun book, and a gratifying one to read aloud.

The best picture books reward on multiple levels and consider both the adult slavishly reciting the story and the youngster hopefully drifting off into sleep as the last pages flutter by. Ideally, both child and adult should delight in the pictures, the story and the music of the words (especially if, as in this case, the story is told in rhyming verse). Hogart the Hedgehog ticks all these boxes.

The artwork is crisp and hilarious – cartoonish in the best sense of the word. Artist Chris Stapp is inventive at every turn, finding novel angles to present every scene. On his adventure into the purple night Old Hogart encounters many beautifully rendered creatures, each bubbling with personality, every face either expressive or wonderfully blank. Our favourite is the worm clutched in a robin’s beak about to be eaten, but the centipede of Hogart’s imagination – enormous, pink with multiple eyeballs straining out of their sockets – comes a close second. That the story takes place at night gives the book an idiosyncratic visual flavour. All backgrounds are brooding, the creatures all in shadow. Only on the last page does the light ease into a crepuscular orange.

The tale is well told. Hogart awakes on his birthday and his family realise they don’t know how old he is because no hedgehog has ever lived longer than the number of toes on their feet (eight). Kids are pleased to know better than the main character, calling out proudly, “It’s nine! Nine!” Nonetheless, the party is cancelled and the quest begins. To get to the mythical number, Hogart must move through the building blocks of mathematics. From the singularity of wormhood, through the binary of a bird’s two wings to the limitless opportunities beyond, the hundred feet of a centipede and the thousands of spines on a hedgehog’s back. Children love the surge of counting towards the infinite, the mysterious massiveness of number words, and the book mines this. But danger is ever present – Hogart is at the mercy of an owl and a loathsome badger (‘a creep of a creature whose four feet went fleeting away down the hill to some other foul meeting’) – and the small-number brevity of life is palpable.

The story’s quite lovely verse form, three rhymes in a row, in stanzas of six lines, makes the book incredibly fun to read. Few rhyming children’s books pull the feat off quite so well as this. Getting to the end of the book, having read it aloud, one feels like there should be some applause for the performance. It’s also allows you improve your reading upon each repeat. You anticipate the sudden arrival of the owl and know to storm straight on to the next line where the grammar allows no pause.

Hogart the Hedgehog Turns Nink is a classic. The art, story and poetry of it are symphonic. It’s also classic in the sense of not patronising a young reader’s vocabulary. Olden day children’s books were always stuffed with wonderful and arcane words. This is where you first learn and grow to love them by association. None of the meaning will escape any child and we applaud Reeve for the ‘verve’. Nick Ascroft

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