Chris Haughton, A Bit Lost

In last week’s Left of Cool column I talked about owls, poo and children’s books as detective manuals. I adored A Bit Lost, and I think I’ll be collecting Haughton’s future work.


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 I rarely buy children’s picture books. But in the past year and a half I have bought four copies of Chris Haughton’s A Bit Lost (published as Little Owl Lost in the USA), replacing my copy of the book each time I’ve spontaneously given it away. Haughton’s art is what makes A Bit Lost so special. It’s very simple, with big areas of empty space that allow the reader to focus on the (surprisingly expressive) animals themselves. The colours are vibrant and improbable – the sky is olive green, the ground is blue, the trees move from a medley of oranges and reds in the day to shadowy purples at sunset. The animals are bright pinks and purples and greens.

Haughton tells the story of a baby owl who falls out of its nest while its (we’re not given any clues as to the baby owl’s gender) mother is asleep. It lands with a bump on the forest floor, and immediately sets about the search for its mother, aided by a helpful squirrel. Unfortunately, the baby owl’s ability to describe its mummy is limited. On being told that she is very big, the squirrel leads the baby owl to a bear. Hearing that she has pointy ears it suggests a hare, and “big eyes” lead it to suggest a frog. Luckily the frog is a bit smarter than the squirrel and is able to reunite the little family. Everyone goes back to the nest and eats biscuits to celebrate.

Obviously there’s nothing particularly original about this story. P. D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother was published more than fifty years ago and that book also tells the story of a baby bird wandering from animal to animal (and in some cases to inanimate objects) trying to find its mother. But then this is a story that is always going to resonate with young readers – many of us still remember the sheer terror of being small and outside the house and separated from a parent.

But there’s another reason this story works. This column has in the past mentioned Terry Pratchett’s Where’s My Cow?, a book-within-a-book about a man searching for his missing cow. In that book the protagonist’s search consists of approaching various farm animals (and a hippopotamus, for some reason), hearing the noises they make, and concluding that they are not his cow. Pratchett’s policeman character Sam Vimes reads the book to his son, and while doing so alters it so that the search for the cow turns into his son’s search for his daddy, by interrogating and eliminating the men he encounters in the city’s streets. It’s appropriate that Vimes is a policeman; Where’s My Cow? is a sort of police procedural.

And then there’s The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business, by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch. This children’s book, first published in German in 1989, is about a mole who wakes up to find that someone has pooped on his head. His search for the culprit consists of approaching each of his suspects (horses, rabbits and the like) and comparing their faeces to what is on his head before declaring them innocent. Eventually the dog is found to be the guilty party, and the mole gets his revenge.

Deductive reasoning consists of slowly eliminating possibilities – as Sherlock Holmes would have it, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. A Bit Lost, like the other books I mention here, is all about eliminating possibilities. Can this be my mummy? Is that my cow? Can this animal have defaecated upon my head? And in a way all books for young children are a form of detective fiction because it is though deduction that we discover what things are not, and therefore what they are, and how they (and we) fit into our world.

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