March 2024
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Review: Ella Minnow Pea, Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea lives on a (fictional) island called Nollop, named after the man who created the phrase “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, which uses every letter in the alphabet.  When the letters on Nollop’s sentence begin to fall off his statue, the little island erupts in chaos, the council deciding that Nollop is speaking to them from heaven.  No one over the age of eight can use the letters that have fallen in writing or speech, with threats of severe punishment and exile if the rules are disobeyed.  Ella and her allies must use all the creativity they possess to write a new sentence and save the island they love so much.

I loved this book.  Not only is it unbelievably creative, it’s also a little challenge towards censorship, promoting literacy and standing up for your rights.  It’s written in epistolary format, so as the letters fall from the alphabet, the people who communicate (and the author) must get more inventive with their phrasing and word choice.  Eventually, they are permitted to write phonetically as long as the offended letters are not used – I’m not sure how that carries over into speech, but by this point there are so few people about that they aren’t speaking very much at all.

The story was very cute and I liked the characters, even though they were a bit difficult to distinguish at times.  I did have to check who was writing, and probably the only distinctive correspondent was Ella Minnow Pea.  I was definitely on the side of the islanders, and I think the whole book is a parody of censorship and when it goes too far.  It can be ridiculous, as it is here, but I loved that at least some of the islanders were determined to stand up for themselves.  I found it hard to believe that anyone would conform to such stupid rules, but it also shows the power that governments can have.

Mostly I think this is an ideal book for people who enjoy words and word play.  I found myself wondering what sentence could possibly match the original for its use of all the letters, and admiring the author’s talent in managing to construct understandable, clever prose that furthers the story without the use of many ordinary letters.  It’s more than I could accomplish!

Ella Minnow Pea is a tiny book, 200 pages with plenty of white space, but it says a lot and is definitely well worth the time it takes to read.  I’m looking forward to reading it again.


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