Wednesday 4 July 2012

Review: Willard Price: Leopard Adventure by Anthony McGowan

Deep in the remote forests of Siberia, a mother Amur leopard, one of the rarest big cats in the world, senses danger. Something faster than any human and deadlier than any tiger.

Meanwhile Amazon Hunt, aged twelve, is recruited from England by Tracks in America, ready to take off at a moment's notice to rescue wild animals under threat - no matter how great the danger.

Now Amazon and her thirteen-year-old cousin Frazer must brave the Russian wilderness to save the Amur leopard, before a blazing forest fire wipes out the race - for good . . .

When I was a child I loved mystery stories. Like many people of my generation I grew up on a diet of Enid Blyton, with The Famous Five and The Five Findouters being particular favourites,and as I grew up I moved on to Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators and The Hardy Boys. At the age of about 8-9, when I wasn't reading mystery stories I was devouring Willard Price's hugely exciting Adventure series, and so it was with quite a lot of excitement, and a small amount of trepidation that I jumped at the chance when I received an email from the nice people at Puffin asking if I would like to read and review a copy of Leopard Adventure by Anthony McGowan.

I remember reading in the book press last year that Anthony would be writing a new series of Adventure books, authorised by the rights holders of the original Willard Price series. This prompted me to dig out my old and well-read copies of the original stories for a nostalgic re-read. The fast-paced stories full of boys' own action and adventure brought back many great memories, but also a realisation that they had dated considerably. Back then, heroes Hal and Roger Hunt travelled the globe with the task of capturing rare wild animals, which were then shipped back to their father's collection, before being sent on to zoos and safari parks. Fast forward to 2012 and this kind of activity is not only frowned upon but would be severely criticised in any book released for kids today. I was left asking just how Anthony McGowan would update this for the modern audience, whilst retaining the adventure and wildlife aspects of Willard Price's stories.

The answer of course, is simple. Just as Andy Briggs has done with his Tarzan reboot, Anthony McGowan has made his teen heroes eco-warriors, members of TRACKS (Trans-Regional Animal Conservation and Knowledge Society), an organisation dedicated to conservation and rescuing wild animals that are in danger, with an emphasis on keeping them in their natural habitats wherever possible. TRACKS was set up by Willard Price's own heroes, brothers Hal and Roger Hunt, now adults but estranged due to a years old clash in opinion over how TRACKS should be run. Hal continued to run the organisation, whilst Roger and his wife continued with related work independently.

At the beginning of the story we are introduced to the brothers' two children, Amazon (daughter of Roger) and Frazer (son of Hal). Amazon is stuck inside a British boarding school whilst her parents are away on another expedition, completely unaware of the activities of TRACKS and how she is very soon going to find herself jetting across the world as one of their operatives. Frazer, meanwhile, is already a fully fledged 'tracker' with many a mission already under his belt. Armed with a latter from Amazon's parents, Frazer flies to England to collect her and take her back to their base in Long Island, USA, said letter hinting that her parents had stumbled across some important information that they needed to share with Hal, and felt that she should be there too. Unfortunately, when Amazon arrives in the US she discovers her parents might be missing, and Hal had gone off in search of them. However, she is given much of a chance to worry, as she soon finds herself on her d├ębut TRACKS mission, and flying off with Frazer to a remote Siberian forest, tasked with rescuing a super-rare Amur Leopard and her cubs from a forest fire, and maybe hunters as well.

Anthony McGowan has done a fantastic job of rebooting Willard Price's original series. Action and adventure in remote parts of the world were the stand out elements of those stories, and Leopard Adventure has those by the truck load. In these technologically advanced days of Google Maps and Google Earth the world can seem much smaller and much more fully explored, even to young readers, and yet McGowan manages to instil in his reader a true sense of awe with his descriptions of the Siberian forest and its animal inhabitants. Part of this is done by occasionally switching point of view from the teen heroes to that of the animals themselves, be it the Amur Leopard, the fierce Siberian tiger or the monstrous brown bear. These PoV shifts also help add to the educational element of the story. This is something else that Leopard Adventure shares with the original stories. Willard Price famously travelled the world, and as such his stories were generally set in remote places that he himself had visited, leading to readers learning about their world whilst enjoying a rip-roaring adventure story.

I think that Leopard Adventure, and most likely the books that will follow if they are as exciting as this one, are perfect for 8+ readers who like their stories rooted in the real world rather than the magical one. They will also be enjoyed by parents who loved the originals, when reading them to their children. Like me, these parents will most likely take delight in spotting the small connections this book has to the original series - I think I actually yelped with excitement when I saw the name Kaggs mentioned as the story reached its climax.

I was angry again the other day when I read an online newspaper article about boys not reading, in which Gavin Barwell MP, the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy, was quoted as suggesting that primary school boys are not equipped with a selection of action and adventure stories. He may be correct, but then he ruined his argument by mentioning authors such as Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. This was the part of the article that so annoyed me - what about all of the authors that have written books since Harry Potter changed the children's publishing scene completely? Yes, the books of these writers are brilliant, but boys also want stories set in the modern day, with the technology that they see around them on a daily basis. By all means, stock your libraries with the classics, but they should not be forced on kids just because they were parental favourites back in the day. Books like Leopard Adventure, Andy Briggs' Tarzan, Horowitz, Riordan, Harris, Muchamore...... (the list is endless) ... are as important, if not even more so when it comes to getting boys reading for enjoyment.

Leopard Adventure is published on 5th July, and my thanks go to the nice people at Puffin for sending me a copy to review. The sequel, Shark Adventure, is scheduled to be released in January 2013, with more books planned for the future.

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