Burly & Grum and the Secret City

Published: 2011
Author: Kate Tenbeth (illustrations by Rob Jones)


A children’s book with a good message – but not a good book


One of my passions is animal welfare.  Ever since I was a little girl I’ve found zoos utterly repellent and the recent debate in Parliament on banning the use of wild animals in circuses sent me into a frenzy.  A charity very close to my heart is the Born Free Foundation which campaigns to free animals from captivity and return them to their natural environment.  Founded by actress Virginia McKenna they do a lot of great work and I urge you to find out more about them.

On Friday Born Free invited supporters to read the children’s ebook Burly & Grum and the Secret City by Kate Tenbeth.  I was immediately intrigued – a book I could read in a couple of hours which had a strong animal welfare message seemed like my idea of Monday morning fun (no – really it did).  I’m also interested more generally in how appealing “message” books and films actually are.  Do they succeed as entertainment or are they a little po-faced and more about the message than the audience?

Burly & Grum and the Secret City is caught somewhere between these two positions.  This is the second of Tenbeth’s ebooks focussing on the relationship between Burlington Bear – Burly to his friends – and Grum the groblin, a strange, green, warty, yellow-toothed creature.  Thrown into this unlikely mix are their pals Max, a ten-year old boy and Mike the angel.  This story follows their adventures visiting a secret city in the forest and attempting to escape from hunters who are looking to capture a bear and sell it to a zoo.  Burly is in danger.

The environmental message is strong.  Not just about the horrors of capturing wild animals to be kept in captivity but also about the impact on wildlife of man’s encroachment into their territory and the enjoyment that some humans take in hunting animals.  The author’s commitment to animal welfare is admirable – she is donating 5% of each book  sale to Born Free’s campaign to help Moon Bears.

It’s with a bit of a heavy heart then that I rate Burly & Grum as below average.  I’m not sure what age range the book is supposed to appeal to and that’s a little off-putting.  At a guess I’d say 7-8 year olds.  Maybe younger but I’m honestly not sure.  Older children who may appreciate the messages are going to flick through this very quickly but I imagine it’s a little too long for children much younger than 7.

The illustrations by Rob Jones are disappointing – the cover promises a lot but the internal pencil sketches are a bit basic and weal.  Ebooks are ripe for colourful, extravagant graphics but there are none here which is a real shame.

The human character Max is completely superfluous to the story and frankly he’s an annoying little prig.  I know the idea is to create a connection with the reader but there’s not many children I know who would empathise with this smug little git.  He’s having a picnic in the forest but has to wash his hands after lunch.  I get that the issue of hygiene is important but you don’t need to batter the kids with it.  I’m not sure any of the Famous Five ever washed their hands after a picnic and were much better heroes for it.  It’s fine to slip some messages about manners, acceptance of other cultures and cleanliness into a children’s book but this is about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

The book isn’t without some merits.  The messages within it are all good and the themes of friendship and loyalty are sweet.  There are some funny moments – the stinky eau de Cologne worn by the hunter is called Man Hunk which made me giggle a bit and the opening page has a description of a mud bath so well written I can almost hear the excited squeals of disgust from children reading it.

Of course, I’m reviewing Burly & Grum and the Secret City as an adult who has no children.  I would love to hear from parents and kids who may have a completely different point of view.  Who knows – the target audience may totally love it?  But I didn’t and for that I do feel genuinely quite sorry.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving a comment or subscribing to the RSS feed to have future articles delivered to your feed reader.

Speak Your Mind