Reviews /

Peanut Jones and the Twelve Portals

Authored by Rob Biddulph
Illustrated by Rob Biddulph
Published by Pan MacMillan

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You will know of Rob Biddulph – even if you don’t think you do. His Draw With Rob draw-along videos were a smash over the covid lockdowns and his picturebooks such as Odd Dog Out, Kevin and Blown Away are some of the best in the business. The man is a phenomenon.

You might not have known that Rob has been working on a series of chapter books, which would be a shame as they are really rather good. This book, Peanut Jones and the Twelve Portals is the second in a series which began with Peanut Jones and the Illustrated City and which concludes with Peanut Jones and the End of the Rainbow. If you are new to the series, don’t start here as they are very much a trilogy, not a set of standalone stories.

In brief, the story centres on Peanut Jones, an art obsessed preteen, and her friends who have to find her abducted father and save the world from the mysterious but clearly very evil Mr White, who is stealing great works of art from museums and galleries around the world and replacing them with reproductions which crumble to dust once he has safely fled the scene. Peanut, her precocious younger sister Little-Bit and their cautious friend Rockwell have to make their way back into the parallel world of Chroma and connect up with the resistance and track down the man in the White Fedora.

Peanut has a snazzy bandolier stuffed with handy art materials and the ability to draw things which become real. The dreadful Mr White wants to remove all the colour from the wonderful world of Chroma and enslave its people. All is set up for a thrilling ride. Just slip through a secret door in a great museum of art, pass through into the world of art and artists and let the adventure begin.

At 340 pages, this an absolute chunker of a book but almost every page is richly illustrated making it a quick read for a child drawn on by the complex but accessible plot and likable characters. Creating the art for a book like this must be an extraordinary task and a nod has to go to the designers who make sure that, with at least half the pages illustrated, we can still easily follow the text.

Biddulph has clearly had a great deal of fun creating the Peanut Jones series. The story is packed with references to art works, artists and movements. Not in a way which would hold the story up but which made me smile on almost every page. The resistance base is accessed through a trap door in Constable’s Hay Wain, the children’s mother is names for Bridget Riley. There is a glossary at the back of the book which is helpful but I can imagine reading this with a child and pausing frequently to google images to complement the story.

Similarly, Biddulph entertains and intrigues with wordplay and fun ideas. I loved the superhero character ‘Generic Multi-Functional Pocket Tool Girl’ with her GMFPT logo on her chest and her wings of corkscrew, tiny scissors, nail file and thing for getting stones out of horses’ hooves.

I am giving this book the highest honour I can when I say it reminded me most of Norton Juster’s classic The Phantom Tollbooth. It knows that it’s silly, it knows that it’s fun and it knows that it’s far more interested in playing with ideas than it is in generating pathos or exploring the inner life of its characters.

If you have a child who loves Draw With Rob and is ready for a slightly more stretching chapter book, I think they might get on very well with the Peanut Jones series. You can hear Rob’s warmth in every page and there’s plenty of content online to complement the series including, of course, draw along videos for the main characters.

I can imagine children really enjoying this anywhere between the ages of 6 to 10 years. They would need to be confident readers – for example, Rob cheerily includes sentences in French which your readers will have to navigate – inferring the meaning from the context or just enjoying the challenge – but the wealth of illustration will help them along and they are going to be proud to show you the big thick book that they are reading.

Well done, Rob. I hope we see more chapter books from him. It turns out that he’s just as good at creating fun, simply but effectively drawn characters with words as he is with pictures. What a talented author!

Shortlisted for The Week Junior Book Awards: Illustrated Fiction category 2023.