Australian illustrator Nicki Greenberg (The Great Gatsby, Hamlet) was kind enough to launch Davide Cali and Vincent Pianina’s 10 Little Insects at the Children’s Book Council National Conference last Saturday in Adelaide. Here’s the transcript of her memorable speech.
Ladies and gentlemen, if anyone offers you a free boat ticket to Tortoise Island, I would suggest that you think very carefully before accepting. The island looks nothing like a tortoise, there is fresh dung on the menu for dinner, and you have at least a 50% chance of being murdered in a comical and undignified manner before your body is unceremoniously stowed in the deep freeze.
Welcome to Davide Cali and Vincent Pianina’s Ten Little Insects. When you open this beautifully presented book, you join a bunch (or a flock? A buzz? Maybe an infestation?) of insects embarking on an island holiday which soon turns very sinister indeed. Summoned to Tortoise Island by a mysterious host, each guest comes with a guilty secret. And within hours someone starts bumping them off one by one. Luckily, moustachioed detective Gafard and his bed-hogging sidekick Lelarve are also on the island, and on the case.
If you are an Agatha Christie fan, this might sound suspiciously like the plot of her famous novel, And Then There Were None [aka Ten Little Indians]. I must admit to having a very soft spot for Ten Little Indians, as it was the second Agatha Christie I ever read, at the age of twelve, and definitely the one that got me hooked. I devoured forty-something more of her mysteries over the next few years, and failed to pick the murderer in a single one of them. Around the same age I also decided that I wanted to be an entomologist when I grew up. An entomologist is, of course, a scientist who studies insects. A coincidence? I think not.
So when I sat down to read Davide Cali’s Ten Little Insects, I thought I was on easy street. For starters, I knew my Lepidoptera from my Phasmatoptera. And I didn’t have to be Hercule Poirot to catch the murderer: I already knew whodunit, right? Well, not quite. Because this is not a faithful retelling of And Then There Were None at all. For instance, I’m pretty sure Dame Agatha Christie never had the butler confessing that ‘the dung we served wasn’t fresh: it was frozen’. Someone is having a laugh here. And the more I read, the more I was the one laughing.
Ten Little Insects is a very funny book, and it’s the kind of funny that does not live by words alone. It’s the kind of funny that comes from the alchemy of both words and pictures working their crazy comic magic together. It’s that combination that we can’t help but succumb to and whose secret we can’t ever really pin down. A bit like a murder mystery… Hmm… Coincidence? Again, I think not!
It’s hard to resist reading this book at the speed of a leaping cricket. It’s pacy, the dialogue cracks along and of course you want to discover the murderer. But try, if you possibly can, to slow down just a tiny bit. Linger a little in the wonderful lush landscapes of the island and the fabulous interiors of the mansion. Enjoy the clever use of space in the page layouts, the colours and textures, and the complex blocking required to portray so many characters’ interlocking conversations. It’s smart, it’s funny, and Cali and Pianina make it look completely effortless.
Despite my adolescent dreams, I did not become either a detective or an entomologist. But I did turn out to be a comic book maker, and I recognise a wonderful specimen when I see one. So it is my great pleasure to launch the Australian edition of Ten Little Insects, and to wish it great success here on this very large island shaped like a big squashed bug.
Nicki Greenberg, May 2012