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Long, Long Ago

by Robin Skelton, Pamela Breeze Currie, illus.

Why do the bullfrog, cat, donkey, rabbit, and jackdaw sound as they do? Why does the owl have eyes that do not move? Why does the crocodile have a stiff neck? Why can’t the ostrich fly, and why does he poke his head in the sand? Robin Skelton takes on all these questions and more in Long, Long Ago. The ostrich does not, in fact, poke its head in the sand, but Skelton’s concern is with propagating myths, not dispelling them. These seven animal fables are well written. Individually, the stories are original and amusing. Taken together, though, there are problems with repetition. For example, on three separate occasions, the rabbit tricks some unworthy animal by telling him or her about a magic gnome. Repetition per se is not a flaw in children’s stories, but a surprising plot device can only surprise so many times. And, since the characters carry over from story to story, children may wonder why the rabbit could fool so many animals with the same old ruse.
These tales are solidly within the tradition of Kipling’s Just So Stories. We find out why the something got its something, and in the process, vanity, greed, and dishonesty are punished, while constancy, humility, and honesty are rewarded. Very Victorian. Also quite British: these animals eat at teatime and forget to wear their mackintoshes. Pamela Breeze Currie’s line drawings contribute warmth and humour. The result is a book that harkens back to those days when all good children looked to Britain for fine literature and moral guidance. This may provoke a certain nostalgia in older parents and grandparents, but children, who lack historical context, may find it just a bit too quaint.