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I was brought up on Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales alongside Edward Lear’s Nonsense Poems. I think one of the first poems I ever actively enjoyed was Matilda Who Told Lies And Was Burned To Death by Belloc. I can still quote:

And when Matilda shouted ‘Fire’, they all shouted ‘Little Liar!’

Jim is one of Belloc’s cautionary tales, about a young man who was always running away from his elders and betters. One day, Jim is taken to the zoo by his nurse maid, and slips away from her as she is about to canoodle with a zoo keeper.

Jim is fearless and foolish. So is the lion who eats Jim.

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Cautionary tales never end well.

This is a rhyming poem, and is actually one I enjoy. I have a well advertised antipathy to poems and stories that rhyme for the most part. I think I love this one because it takes me back to my childhood, and the gusto with which my mother read it to me, obviously loving every minute of hamming it up, rather than because it is a particularly fine example of the genre.

The poem has been given a new lease of life with the addition of Mini Grey’s splendid illustrations.  This is why we picked it up from the shelf in the library to bring home. My son is a huge fan of Traction Man, and recognised Grey’s style instantly.

The illustrations work for the most part. The problem I have with this book is that it has elements of pop up and lift the flap, reveals and other papery tricks up its sleeve. The gatefold elements make it difficult to figure out which way the story must be read in places, and the pop ups sometimes get in the way of the flow of the poem, most of the joy of which comes from reading its tub thumping meter.

One of the things I really loved was all the little Victorian/Edwardian homilies that look like stitched samplers in the end pages. I also loved the zoo rules, which are on the back of the fold out map of the zoo. Grey has added massive value to the story with these little touches.

The book would make a lovely gift for someone who knows the poem and loves it, or for someone like this to share with a child.  It is not really the kind of book you can leave a small child with, as it is quite intricate and liable to be torn. The copy we had from the library has some damage to it. I would not buy it for a school library for this very reason, although it would be a wonderful classroom resource used under guidance from a teacher.

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