I’ve posted before about my love for Noyes’ poem, The Highwayman; its incredible figurative beauty and heart wrenching sadness. I’ve shared my fondness for comedic rips by Monty Python and Blackadder. I also fell head over heals in love when series two of Horrible Histories parodied Adam Ant in a musical take on the life and times of Dick Turpin. There’s something deeply romantic and tragic about the story of ruthless, violent killers. Perhaps its the outfits?! I think, having used Noyes’ masterpiece time and time again, perhaps has fabricated the history a little and left me with the beauty of his words, rather than the callousness of the truth.
Regardless, I think the role of a highwayman is a perfect stimulus for fiction. I once scribbled ideas for my own children’s picture book about a highwayman. Sadly, Julia Donaldson beat me to it with a much more imaginative, incredibly wonderful version.
Having been hiding under my blanket of work, I hadn’t realised another Donaldson-Scheffler creation was donning the shelves, not that is until I ran the Scholastic Book fair in school in November. While obviously encouraging children to buy, buy, buy and in turn extend their reading collections, my eye was firmly fixed on copies of The Highway Rat. For five evenings I read and re-read the book until eventually my purse succumbed and another book was added to my picture book collection. But this is no other picture book. Yes it is brilliantly written and gorgeously illustrated as ever, but it is so much more. It is a very clever little book. It is a book which will automatically send teachers of Narrative Poetry, running for the nearest book shelves in libraries up and down the country.
For The Highway Rat is written in Noyes’ style, in his rhythm and pattern and sway. Where the Highwayman ‘ comes riding, riding, riding . . .’ so too does Highway Rat! The story may not actually include quite as many deaths or locked up daughters as the 1906 poem, but it is certainly another tool in a teacher’s arsenal to inspire and relate to contemporary publications. And as I’ve always maintained, older kids LOVE an opportunity to have a picture book in front of them again! It would be a great compare and contrast lesson!!
But for me, this book is pure inspiration. It shows how an author can have an adoration for something, a passion, and play with it to inspire others. It may not, in my mind, be as strong as other Donaldson books, Room on the Broom, Stickman, and of course the ever popular Gruffalo, but it has a magic quality all of its own. Poetry is not always an easy thing to convince children (or adults) they like, even when they paint stories like The Listeners, The Lady of Shalott or The Raven. The presentation and precedent of these pieces is often the quickest turn off, even before the initial prose has been explored. Yes, The Highway Rat is silly, yes it is fun, but its also the hook, the way in. Its a hidden way of showing people that narrative poetry is achievable, interesting, fun, magical. An entertainment.
For this, I commend Donaldson. I think it is brilliant. And makes me sigh a deep relief that the future of our great literature may get a hand hold in the media-savvy kids of today. Thank you Julia.