Nelly and the Quest for Captain Peabody – review

I’m always on the lookout for new stories for younger readers where the female protagonist has an adventure. Nelly and the Quest for Captain Peabody, by Roland Chambers and with enchanting illustrations by Ella Okstad, is the first in a new series for the 7-9 age group (though I suggest that it would appeal right through to upper primary years), and my goodness does it tick that box!

Nelly lives with her mother, who is sad and remote and obsessed with knitting. Her father, Captain Peabody, of the Gentlemen’s Exploratory Flotilla, has left many years previously to sail around the world, and has not yet returned. Though, curiously, he does send parcels of exotic painted snails home, which crawl around the house and get in the way of the taps.

Nelly’s best (and only) friend is her turtle Columbus, who doesn’t speak. And Nelly being a practical sort of girl eventually decides that the state of affairs is intolerable and so the best thing to do is to set sail herself in search of the missing Captain Peabody. Fortunately, there is a boat available for this purpose, though Nelly is forced to knit herself some sails before it’s seaworthy. And then she writes her mother a note, promising to be back in a year, and sets off with Columbus.

Nelly is a great character: practical, no-nonsense, and with that childlike optimism that somehow everything will turn out all right. I liked her very much – and Columbus too. She faces many perils on her journey – extremes of temperature, whirlpools, and pirates. My favourite line in the book made me laugh out loud, and won’t make any sense out of context, but to reveal why it is funny would spoil the plot:

“Of course!” she said. “You’re the postman!”

There are many delightful aspects to this book, not least the subtle feminist message (“GENTLEMEN ONLY” said the sign on the door. So Nelly went in.). Adding to the enjoyment are the really wonderful illustrations by Ella Okstad, which capture the excitement of the adventure perfectly, and in a restricted colour palette, like OUP’s other highly illustrated books, Oliver and the Seawigs, and Cakes In Space.

As a reader, I enjoyed this book very much, though I would have liked a little more emotional depth to it (which is very much personal preference and reflected in the type of books that I write). Nelly’s mother is clearly suffering from some kind of grief and/or depression, and and her interactions with Nelly are not really shown beyond a bare mention. Nelly is kind and thoughtful, arranging her mother a carer for while she’s away, but we don’t really get a sense of Nelly’s own feelings on being so very isolated and neglected for so long. Nor, as events unfold, are we allowed into Nelly’s feelings about them. I think the ending could have had more emotional punch as well, and I was a little disappointed that things weren’t tied up as neatly as I’d have liked – there is another out now, Nelly and the Flight of the Sky Lantern, and so I assume Nelly’s voyages continue. I hope too that the second book explores the idea that Nelly and her turtle Columbus can share dreams, which is something I’d have liked to know more about.

Having said that, the writing is utterly delightful, and I gobbled up sections like this, which are perfect for reading aloud:

In conclusion, this is a really lovely book for the 7-9 age range, and a worthy addition to the Girl Adventurers Genre (which is still sadly too small). It reminded me of another beautifully-written book for this age group, Erica’s Elephant (which I reviewed here). Nelly and the Quest for Captain Peabody is published by OUP and available now, as is its sequel, Nelly and the Flight of the Sky Lantern.


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