You may have noticed by now that not only do I like Barbara Jones, but I perhaps like her owls best of all. Which means that I have been wanting a copy of this, the apotheosis of all her owlery, for quite some time.
It’s a late children’s book from 1970, and given that the only time I’d ever seen it on offer was for £650 on Abebooks, I didn’t think we’d ever own one. But, finally, eBay came up with a copy. And at a price which meant that we didn’t have to mortgage the cats to buy it, either.
Now, as a set of illustrations of owls by Barbara Jones, it can’t be bettered. Here are the family having their nightly row about the correct colour balance of the television set.
And here are Twit and Howlet themselves.
This is their house.
And here is a passing cat (owls and cats are, of course, deadly enemies).
But it’s not just the drawing which make the book delightful, some of the page layouts are a total joy as well.
This is perhaps my favourite.
The details are also brilliant, like the sand in the illustrations above.
Along with the provisions the two owls buy for their trip.
But having said all that, I can see why there aren’t many copies available, because it doesn’t really work as a children’s book.
The plot is quite simple – Twit and Howlett build a hot air balloon and accidentally fly across the Channel and win a French balloon race with it. Organised by French owls, obviously.
But most of the book isn’t concerned with what happens, it’s all about building the balloon. And it’s done with a sense of humour (and a few long words) that is probably beyond the average picture book reader.
Thinking about what there was left to do, Howlet got depressed. ‘Critical Path Analysis,’ he said. Twit looked startled. ‘That means start the longest problem first and our longest problem is the gunge for the envelope.’
‘What’s gunge?’ Twit asked.
‘Oil, rubber or mastic,’ replied Howlet, importantly.
‘Gummy stuff, I think.’
Twit gave Howlet a withering look. ‘Same as gunge, in fact; what a one you are for complicating things.’
Meanwhile the owl family are still arguing over the television set.
Next morning Howlet went back to the library and then on to the Chemist’s. He came back at last with a tin of something that the books and the Librarian and the Chemist all said would be suitable.
They started to treat the envelope, first with elation, then with stickiness, and at last with a creeping immobility that had to be felt to be believed; but it was all done at last and hung up to dry.
The Chemist had prudently given Howlet a bottle of gunge-solvent, so they had a long gruesome preen before dinner.
I love it, but I don’t think that’s quite the point.
I also think that she lost interest once the balloon had been built – the later illustrations do rather tail off in quality and detail. But you will be relieved to hear that the owls do get home safely in the end, and they get to see themselves with the cup on television.
It was the best colour-row ever.
And quite possibly the best owls ever too.