How to Wash a Woolly Mammoth

This catchily-titled offering by Michelle Robinson and Kate Hindley is great fun.  There are a few things I don’t think work, but overall it’s a creative, original book which will appeal to a wide range of ages.

The premise is simple: washing a woolly mammoth is a real challenge, among other reasons because “wool is notoriously tricky to clean.”  (You will know from experience that I approve of any book that doesn’t talk down to young readers and this one maintains a mock-serious ‘instruction manual’ style which is quite sophisticated and adds to the humour of the story.  There are even diagrams labelled ‘fig 1’ and ‘fig 2’.)  The book is presented as the title suggests as a ‘how-to’ guide, except that we are also given a sense of the failures likely to occur when tackling this ‘mammoth’ task.

The illustrations are quirky and attractive, and the manner in which the mammoth fills most pages is very effective in implying his size and weight.

Linguistically the mock-imperative style works well and is deliberately set alongside and occasionally against the illustrations.  There are several funny moments, especially when the mammoth accidentally gets soap in his eyes, and the next instruction: “to get a wet woolly mammoth down from a tree you need a very strong trampoline” will give you a sense of the appealingly absurd flavour of the book.

Funnily enough, after all that he isn’t that clean any more…

However although there is undeniably humour here and even profound wisdom (“if all else fails, there is always cake”) there are a few jokes which fall flat.  One of these is the grid picture showing the mammoth’s different hairstyles.  For one thing these aren’t really distinct enough to be funny, but more significantly the style ‘names’ are way beyond the understanding of a small child – and in some cases even an adult.  One particular quiff is nicknamed ‘The King’, a reference that was lost on both my children. Sillier, clearer pictures here would have been much more effective; as it is I always feel this page falls flat.

My favourite aspect of this was actually the back cover, and my five year old very much enjoyed reading the labels of the products to herself.

The end is neatly done and quite a cosy, cuddly finish, making this actually a surprisingly effective bedtime story.

Overall, this was very popular with its target audience, but disappointing from an adult perspective.  It promises much, but the best jokes shouldn’t be the ones on the back page.

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