School Ship Tobermory, written by Alexander McCall Smith, illustrations by Iain McIntosh
published in Scotland in 2015; first U.S. edition 2016 by Delacorte Press
You may know him as the author of the vast No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, but Alexander McCall Smith has written a number of chapter books for young readers as well.
This latest one is a fast-clipped adventure set on a school ship. That is, this lucky crew of boys and girls are going to school aboard the good ship Tobermory, learning the ropes of sailing and having a few other lessons to boot, while sailing among the islands off the Scottish mainland. Nice gig, huh?
Not so fast, though, because although the majority of these children are responsible, well-mannered, bright, and eager persons, there are a few bad apples in the barrel. Nasty ol’ William Edward Hardtack, for one. He and his fellow bullies aim to rule the ship with snark and cruelty.
Ben and Fee, twelve-year-old twins, are the newest students aboard the Tobermory. It doesn’t take but a hot minute for them to land on the wrong side of Hardtack and Co. That means that as well as learning how to scrabble up those impossibly high masts and how to use proper sailing terminology — That’s not a staircase! It’s a companionway, if you please! — they’ve got to outmaneuver the rotten tricks of the bully squad.
The adventures are ratcheted up when a film crew on a neighboring vessel take on some Tobermory students as extras. Ben is one of those lucky kids, but before long, he’s sniffed out some mighty suspicious activity aboard the Albatross. What are they really up to?
Smith’s story reads like a tale from bygone days. There’s a simplicity, naiveté, and old-fashioned decorum of language that makes this feel a bit like a story written in the 1950s. The bad guys are thoroughly bad. The good folks are 100% good. The conflict is a straightforward cinch to follow. Even the danger, though there is potential for great harm, never turns violent, and at the height of his distress, the Captain’s strongest exclamation is, “My Goodness!”
The book takes an unusual tack with the illustrations, inserting comic panels at various places within the story that recap some of the recent events. These make for jolly interruptions.
All of this makes the book a great choice for young-but-advanced readers. A 7-year-old with mad reading skills could make her way through this without being in over her head with mature content, even though it’s 215 pages long. My one quibble is McCall’s repeated references to one student’s “rather large front teeth” a completely unnecessary detraction and unfortunate focus on appearance. The second Tobermory tale, The Sands of Shark Island, is already out in the UK.