Imogen’s Book of the Week: Hercufleas, by Sam Gayton, illustrated by Peter Cottrill, Andersen Press
Today, my Book of the Week is a genre-defying beauty from Sam Gayton, whose earlier titles, The Snow Merchant and Lilliput, have already established him as a fresh, exuberant and original middle-grade writer. To me, Hercufleas is a tremendous example of what I’ve alliteratively christened ‘humour with heart’ (catchy!) – funny, often surreal books, featuring plenty of the gross-out humour dear to kids, but simultaneously packing an impressive emotional punch. Other recent examples include Hamish and the Worldstoppers, The Astounding Broccoli Boy, The Deadly Seven, and My Brother is a Superhero – all of which are stonking one-sitting reads. But Hercufleas is my personal pick of the bunch.
Greta, thief, liar and desolate orphan, has stolen her village’s last remaining gold. Now she is seeking to hire a hero, who must destroy the giant laying waste to her home and killing its people, her parents among them. She’s expecting to come home with a muscle-bound, sword-wielding colossus. Instead, she picks up Hercufleas.
Hercufleas is large, for a flea; the size of a raisin, with boundless confidence, and an inimitable battle-cry:
“Whatever size his enemies,
The winner’s always HERCUFLEAS!”
Gayton’s prose is dirtily hilarious (in moments of great terror, Hercufleas produces fear-poos which consist of tiny scabs.) It is also meditative, poignant, and rich, like the best high fantasy; words like ‘glaucous’, and ideas like a bell-shaped earring which rings when its wearer is told a lie, transport the reader effortlessly into the forested, shadowy world of the writer’s imagination. Peter Cottrill’s shadowy, half-menacing illustrations perfectly complement the story’s magnificent strangeness. And in fierce, practical Greta, with her broken, bronze-clad heart, the book has a splendid heroine, almost as unusual as its eponymous protagonist.
Hercufleas won’t be for everyone – it may well be too strange, too tight-woven, or simply too surprising for more down-to-earth and literal young readers. But for kids (and adults) with a yen for bizarre, poetic, heartfelt and outrageous fantasy, this story should stay on the memory-shelf throughout the reader’s life.