Oxford children’s book illustrator Mini Grey tells a slightly nervous ANDREW FFRENCH about her colourful re-telling of one of Hilaire Belloc’s more gruesome Cautionary Tales.

WHEN I was a kid, I was fascinated by a collection of children’s verse owned by my mother.

It was called The Golden Staircase, and one particular poem horrified me.

The petrifying poem was Jim, a Cautionary Tale by Hilaire Belloc.

The catchy ditty tells the alarming tale of a boy who runs away at the zoo — and is then eaten by Ponto the rather large lion.

I was only five or six at the time, and Jim provided me with my first brush with death.

I kept wondering what it would be like to be eaten by a lion, and completely missed the tongue-in-cheek tone of Belloc’s poem.

To this day, the opening couplet “There was a boy whose name was Jim; His friends were very good to him” fills me with dread.

But now, children’s book illustrator Mini Grey, who is perhaps best known for her Traction Man stories, has helped me to confront my fears by turning the poem into her latest picture book.

Her treatment of the Victorian’s verse is typically colourful, and the book is full of eye-catching illustrations and pop-ups.

Ms Grey, who lives in East Oxford, has a three-year-old son called Herbie who, not surprisingly, has been a fan of picture books “for a long time”.

He is probably a bit too young to appreciate the permanent nature of Jim’s fate, but an audience of children at a recent reading at Woodstock Museum rewarded the author with a reaction, with one of the young readers led away in tears. “I haven’t had too many children going off in tears,” the author, who is in her 40s told The Guide.

“I started out doing this for fun and worked first on another Cautionary Tale called Rebecca, but Jim is a gift to illustrate because it moves all over the place.

“Belloc’s Cautionary Tales are very tongue-in-cheek – they tell you how to be good, but at the same time it’s an excuse to show someone being brutally murdered.

“I think the words of Jim just jump off the page and the poem still sparkles today.

“A lot of my books, including Egg Drop and The Adventures of the Dish and the Spoon, have featured death, or near-death experiences, and picture books are a great place for children to rehearse these big questions.”

Ms Grey, who lives in Aston Street and has won numerous industry awards, thinks the issues in Jim are as relevant today as they were in the first decade of the 20th century when the poem was published.

She explains: “Children are not allowed to roam around as much as they used to these days, and if Jim had been allowed more freedom he might not have run straight into the jaws of a lion.”

Ms Grey might be right, but I have cancelled all my zoo visits for the foreseeable future — just in case.

• Jim by Mini Grey and Hilaire Belloc is published by Jonathan Cape, price £12.99.