Welcome to the darker days of winter. This Ex Libris is a little sparkling star to help brighten those darkest nights. The Nodland Express (1995, Macmillan Children’s Books) was written by Anna Clarke and illustrated by – wait for it – Martin Rowson. Strangely, The Nodland Express seems to be the only children’s book ever written by the author, Anna Clarke. Clarke (1919 – 2004) was better known for her sleuthing series of mysteries and other than a “fantastic” website left over from the Reagan administration, it is difficult to find information about her.
Rowson, on the other hand, is today a formidable character in the political and editorial cartooning world. His work is described as “visceral and deliberately offensive” and after viewing his recent works, one would be forgiven for not linking him to the likes of The Nodland Express – a children’s bedtime story.
The Nodland Express is a prime example of not judging a book by its cover. The cover, which shouts the title in epileptic fit inducing yellow on navy, does not highlight the treasures to be found inside! Skip past the cover and note the precious dedication illustration.
The story begins with Isaac and Maude’s lovely red-haired mother telling them “Goodnight . . . Off you go to the Land of Nod!” As Maude begins to wonder (as every child does) ‘where is the Land of Nod?’ and ‘how exactly do we get there?’, Isaac suggests that they go ‘by train’. So Maude buys the tickets (return of course) while Isaac finds out “which train to catch”. This is where we see the full glory and stunning wackiness of Rowson’s work. A huge green train awaits the children, but a closer look rewards the viewer with sightings of a wolf with a carpet bag of nightmares, a walrus in a top hat, a moose in a mackintosh and a sleepy porter with a trolley of pillows.
Noticing that they are in a car with the aforementioned wolf and moose as well as a cauldron-toting witch and a cigarette-smoking toad (ah the 1990s!), Maude begins to question if they are on the correct train at all. Tension mounts as the wolf asks the children to “look after” his bag, but he asks with such a toothy smile that Maude agrees.
Once they reach the border of the Land of Nod, the inspectors board to “check everyone’s luggage and passports and tickets”. One by one the creepy characters are removed from the train for various reasons. The wolf’s nightmare-filled bag is impounded, and the wolf is ordered “Off you get!”. The witch is caught with an invalid passport and her broomstick is impounded. Best of all though, is the toad who provides the inspector with “a rather chewed and dirty piece of paper” which turns out to be invalidated as “an Afternoon Snooze Ticket”. With all the hurdles to a good night’s sleep removed, the train then continues to Nodland.
Once the train arrives at the Nodland Grand Terminus, where the passengers can avail of the Tucking-up Office, the Glass of Water Office or the Bedtime Stories newsstand, Maude and Isaac disembark and are led to their room by a very familiar character.
Long and hard have I preached that pictures should not mirror the text of a story or what is the point? It is the marriage of text with imaginative pictures, telling more, less or something slightly different than the text that makes a strong work. Clarke and Rowson here have a beautiful alliance! Clarke’s story is rich and entertaining and not a bit childish. She writes about nightmarish characters, causing wonder but not fear, and her language is clear without being dumbed down for the reader.
Rowson then adds his own fabulous, colourful and yes, wacky pictures. There are brilliant little details to discover – elephants carrying loads of teddies and bedtime stories while sinking into a pink mattress covered ground, an emergency toothbrush and toothpaste, and a beaver with her ‘Nod State Railways’ cocoa and her twig snack. Note also in the background, the walrus reading the paper in which all the headlines read “ZZZZzzzzz”.
For whatever reason, this book never seemed to get the attention I feel it deserves. It has not been reprinted, and used copies are very affordable. But seeing Rowson’s work in a different format, for a different audience is such a treat! Who else would even think to put a hippo in a luggage rack, or a policeman in a pink onesie or a wolf in spats? Well done Mr. Rowson.