Forgotten Book of the Week: Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain
by Edward Ardizzone
Oxford University Press, 1936
reissued: Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2006
Kids are famous for their obsessions. Dinosaurs, trains, princesses, natural disasters, Vikings, what have you -- I know several small people who are more than willing to spill all sorts of knowledge about their pet topic into a willing ear. What better topic for a picture book than a story of a kid whose favorite-thing wishes are fulfilled?
Enter Little Tim. He loves all things nautical, having grown up along the shore, and spends his time playing on boats on the beach and visiting his friend, the retired Captain McFee. How deep does his love of boats go? "Sometimes Tim would astonish his parents by saying, 'That's a Cunarder' or 'Look at that barquentine on the port bow.'" Tim, who appears to be about five or six years old, is crushed to be informed by his parents that he cannot become a sailor until he is an adult. However, when Tim is given the chance to visit onboard a steamer, he stows away until the ship is out to sea, but then works his way into the good graces of the crew and captain. When the steamer is shipwrecked, Tim bravely stays with the ship's captain until they are rescued, leading to a satisfying conclusion (complete with medals of honor).
There's a charming simplicity to the level of fantasy in this book -- it reads almost like a child's backyard pretend play. Tim heads off to sea without ever worrying if he will be missed, and when he returns home, Mother and Father greet him as complacently and cheerfully as if he had just skipped home from school. The steamer captain gives Tim a good scolding for stowing away (and -- horrors! -- makes him scrub the deck) but underneath, the captain is an old softy who doesn't mind slipping our hero the occasional cup of cocoa. Dangers lurk beneath the ocean waves, but there's always a lifeboat within easy reach to take Tim back to shore. It's just the sort of adventure that I would have relished -- and believed in -- when I was Tim's age.
Let's not forget the illustrations -- it's what Ardizzone is best known for (he was awarded the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1956). The scenes in this book are good and salty, as all sea stories should be. Color spreads alternate with black-and-white ink drawings, and all of them manage to properly convey the briny air and slapping waves apropos to sea travel. Even the tones Ardizzone picked for the color illustrations look appropriately washed out, with plenty of greys and blues. The pictures already look as if they've been two years before the mast. Tim's figure is always lithe and big-headed, conveying the perfect blend of innocence and pluck necessary for his character.
This is but one of many "Little Tim" adventures, but is the only one that has been recently reissued. With luck, Frances Lincoln will choose to send out some more, for nobody deserves more adventures and outings than Tim and his very lucky readers.