The Triumphant Return of Captain Najork

Alison Morris - August 19, 2007

Earlier this week my pal Leo Landry stopped by the store unexpectedly, and it was great to see him there, having previously paid him many a visit on his former bookstore turf, The Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, MA. Owned by the all-knowing Terri Schmitz, The Children’s Book Shop is a venerable children’s bookselling institution, where for 20 years Leo served as store manager. Now he writes and illustrates full-time, creating the same types of books he used to spend his days handselling.

When I asked what Leo missed most about being a bookseller he said it was knowing all the books that were out, all the time. I sympathized with this, as I’ve always feared the panicky feelings I’d experience were I to somehow miss even just one season as a buyer. Given the mind-boggling number of books now published in any one quarter of the year, it’d be so easy to fall impossibly far behind after even only a couple months’ hiatus.

That having been said, it’s impossible to see all books by all publishers, and even those of us seemingly "in the know" will occasionally discover gems that somehow flew past our kid lit radars. I learned about two such books when publisher David R. Godine recently made a sales call to our store for the first time a year or so. Somehow Lorna and I failed to cross paths with him in late 2006, and I therefore missed my chance to make the early acquaintance of two wonderful books he rescued from the out-of-print rolls and reissued last year — two books I feel I should have known about all my life but had never seen before this month — two books about Captain Najork.


Captain Najork is the would-be hero of How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen and A Near Thing for Captain Najork, both written by Russell Hoban and illustrated by Quentin Blake. The books have an exquisitely wacky sensibility that’s a bit Roald Dahl, a bit William Steig, and a lot Russell Hoban. In them we meet Tom, a boy who’s an expert at fooling around with whatever crosses his path — sticks, stones, mud, high things, low things, any things. As the first sentence of How Tom Beat… explains, "Tom lived with his maiden aunt, Miss Fidget Wonkham-Strong. She wore an iron hat, and took no nonsense from anyone. Where she walked the flowers drooped, and when she sang the trees all shivered."

Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong believes that fooling around is a close cousin to playing and that "too much playing is not good." She tells Tom to do something useful, but Tom, being a normal boy, can’t stop fooling around. Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong therefore does as she’s continually threatened and sends for Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen.

"Captain Najork," said Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, "is seven feet tall, with eyes like fire, a voice like thunder, and a handlebar mustache. His trousers are always freshly pressed, his blazer is immaculate, his shoes are polished mirror-bright, and he is every inch a terror. When Captain Najork is sent for he comes up the river in his pedal boat, with his hired sportsmen all pedalling hard. He teaches fooling-around boys the lesson they so badly need, and it is not one that they soon forget."

Tom soon finds that Captain Najork is not in the least bit a terror. In order to teach Tom a lesson, the Captain and his hired sportsmen attempt to best the boy at womble, muck, and sneedball, which turn out to be variations on Tom’s favorite activities:

The hired sportsmen brought out the ramp, the slide, the barrel, the bobble, the sneeding tongs, the bar, and the grapples. Tom saw at once that sneedball was like several kinds of fooling around that he was particularly good at. Partly it was like dropping things off bridges into rivers and fishing them out and partly it was like fooling around with barrels in alleys.

"I had better tell you," said the Captain to Tom, "that I played in the Sneedball Finals five years running."

"They couldn’t have been very final if you had to keep doing it for five years," said Tom.

When Tom predictably beats Captain Najork, the Captain is, to his credit, very sportsmanlike in his defeat, and always dashing in his blazer and freshly-pressed trousers — so dashing, in fact, that Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong takes quite a liking to him, much as you’ll take quite a liking to these books.

As for the man who penned them, Russell Hoban is best-known in children’s lit. circles for his books about Frances, the plucky badger with a thing for bread and jam and a delightful habit of singing her own songs. Hoban has also written quite a number of novels for "grown-ups" and garnered a legion of fans, some of whom have participate in an annual celebration of his birthday called the Slickman A4 Quotation Event (or SA4QE). Apparently, each year on February 4th, SA4QE participants record a favorite Hoban quote on a piece of paper and post it somewhere in public view. I have not participated in these festivities, but were I to do so I’d probably have to go with one of the poems from the only Frances book that’s currently (sadly) out of print, Egg Thoughts and Other Frances Songs. My two favorites are "Lorna Doone, Last Cookie Song (I Shared It With Gloria)" and "Songs for Television Shows I Would Like to See."

2 thoughts on “The Triumphant Return of Captain Najork

  1. Phoebe

    I cannot beLIEVE that I missed David Godine. Or did I see him and not know who he was???? When was he here? Rats. He is my very favorite publisher.

  2. Janaki kozeluh

    I am a teacher of Indigenous Australian children, aged 9 to 11 and we are currently studying and enjoying the two stories, “How Tom Beat Captain Najork” and “A Near Thing for Captain Najork,” written by Russell Hoban. When my two sons were young boys in the early 90’s, these were two favourite bedtime stories, so it is a joy to share them again.


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