BLOG Eleanor Howe

NWR Issue 117

Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds

Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds is the follow-up to Horatio Clare’s 2015 children’s debut, Branford Boase Award-winning Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot. Both are published by Aberystwyth and Cardiff-based children’s press Firefly, and neither of them shy away from big themes. The middle-grade novels focus on young Aubrey, or ‘Rambunctious Wolf’, as his animal chums call him. As his name suggests, he is a rambunctious boy who learns to run before he can walk and crashes a car by the time he is four. Now an older boy, he has discovered that he can telepathically converse with animals.

In Yoot, Aubrey grapples with profound issues, as his dad, Jim, suffers a debilitating bout of depression, brought on by no less than the Universal Terror of Existence (the eponymous Yoot).With the help of animals from nearby Rushing Wood, a dung-beetle with an existential complex and an owl that can induce psychedelic dream-visons, Jim is now restored to full health.

But Aubrey’s problems aren’t over, and at the beginning of Terrible Ladybirds there is more domestic unrest as the hero’s mum, Suzanne, begin to have increasingly bitter rows. If that wasn’t enough to worry about, Aubrey has been shrunk to the size of a ten pence piece, and is being badgered by a spider to help save the world before the ‘Great Hunger’ destroys life as we know it.

Aubrey travels to Europe via the ‘Web of Time and Space’ (only available to arachnids and shrunken children – sorry, adult readers), and learns some terrible truths about pesticides and destructive humans. A rude French earthworm, a German spider in a top-hat and a very worried bee urge Aubrey to warn the rest of his species of the impeding ecological disaster: ‘Eet is not a complicated message is it, O-Bray?’

However, he is soon called back home to deal with the growing unrest that is bristling through his beloved Rushing Wood. Sparked by the influx of some foreign ladybirds, the wood’s inhabitants are fighting about who rightfully belongs in Britain:

‘This is my home,’ retorted the rabbit.
‘No it isn’t!’ shouted the ladybird. ‘The Romans brought you here in 43 AD!’
‘No they didn’t!' the rabbit exclaimed. ‘I was born in the warren by the crags.’

This dialogue is typical of Clare’s writing style, peppered throughout with educational trivia ranging from topics as diverse as Greek yoghurt, moot points and natural history. He raises an important topic, and in the same breath illuminates its absurdity with deft touches of humour. Many of the major issues of our time get an airing: immigration; diminishing animal populations; destructive ecological practises; human greed. But Clare pitches the tone just right. He sidesteps being preachy, patronising or boring by masterfully interweaving these weighty topics into a ripping yarn that is at turns outrageous, hilarious, thoughtful and wise. Like all the best teachers, Clare imparts a lesson before you realise that you are having one.

As the argument between the animals rages out of control, even the trees start to up-sticks and leave – the non-native ones, that is. Soon the emptying wood is ragged, half-destroyed and much quieter without the glorious diversity that the different animal species bring to it– whether they were here before the last Ice Age or not.

Aubrey, still the size of a coin, attends a raven conference in Wales to try and sort everything out (naturally). There, he has a cosmic, visionary experience that shows him just how small and silly us humans really are, crashing about on our tiny speck in an infinite and mysterious universe.

There is something truly chilling about the knowing mutterings amongst the animals of the coming ‘Great Hunger’, the details of which they are loathe to discuss with us Homo sapiens. But Clare tempers the darkness in his book with the wonderful, hopeful humanity at the heart of it, and the indefatigable spirit of Aubrey. Clare’s book is a timely, enchanting thing and his message for this fractured world is simple enough: love your fellow creatures indiscriminatingly, speak up for what is right, measure yourself and others by deeds rather than words and, importantly, get outside into the countryside and start listening to the animals. After all, perhaps they know something we don’t….

Eleanor Howe is completing her MA in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.


previous blog: The Dragon Has Two Tongues
next blog: The Moon-Eyed People and the White Ravens


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