Vivian French (text), Marta Kissi (illus). The Adventures of Alfie Onion. Walker Books, 1 July 2016, 189pp., $14.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781406363104
Aggie Lumpett, a devotee of fairy tales, is convinced that she is going to ‘marry a prince and live happily ever after’. Sadly, no princes ever come her way so she settles for the next best thing – she marries a seventh son and proceeds to bear seven (well, eight if you count Alfie) sons of her own. She cossets her seventh child (entirely ignoring her eighth), names him Magnifico and declares him a hero. Magnifico’s destiny is set – he will venture forth (with Alfie in the role of Faithful Servant), win the hand of a lovely and wealthy princess, and then return home enabling Aggie to live ‘Happily Ever After in Glorious Luxury’.
But, as with all good fairy tales, things don’t quite go to plan. Magnifico is a sullen, unimaginative, cowardly glutton. Hardly the stuff heroes are made of. Thank goodness for Aggie’s diminutive and overlooked son, Alfie. He has an adventurous disposition, and an amiable attitude towards animals and trolls.
Prolific British author Vivian French plays with a raft of fairy tale tropes – talking animals; a journey into a deep, dark forest; a castle surrounded by thorns; wicked ogres; and a sleeping princess. But French turns some of these motifs on their narrative heads. (Spoiler coming up.) The princess, for instance, wakes all by herself (after the obligatory 100 years slumber) and endures a succession of kisses from dreary princes. She pretends to sleep through them all. When the humble Alfie turns up, Princess Mary sits up in bed and directs the story’s denouement.
Marta Kissi’s many illustrations enliven the text. She draws out the personalities of all the characters, and effectively exposes the emotional highs and lows experienced by Magnifico and Alfie in particular. The pictures help tell the story for younger readers who are moving into more sophisticated chapter books.
Free-flowing action, distinctive characters and subtle humour make The Adventures of Alfie Onion a wonderful candidate for reading aloud in the classroom. The novel also lends itself to a consideration of what makes a ‘hero’ and a discussion about the narrative structure of fairy tales.
For ages 8+
Reviewed by Tessa Wooldridge