December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

With the eye of a Renaissance painter and the ear of Dr. Seuss, Aussie Graeme Base is not your basic children’s book author. Sure, his lavishly illustrated new book, The Eleventh Hour, appears at first glance to be a children’s mystery, but Base didn’t plan it that way. “I write to please myself,” he says.” I don’t let some nagging doubt about whether the kids will understand a joke force me to simplify things more than is obviously necessary. Kids can work this stuff out. If somebody says to me, ‘What age group does this appeal to?’ I say 31—my age.”

In fact, Base has produced what most publishers would kill for: the crossover children’s book that also appeals to adults. On one level the book, with nearly half a million copies in print worldwide, is the charmingly simple tale of Horace, an enterprising elephant who whips up 11 confections and invites 11 animal friends to his 11th birthday party. But at the eleventh hour, an intruder devours the feast, setting up a clever whodunit. Base sprinkles the book with clues and red herrings, and a familiarity with hieroglyphics, the Morse code and anagrams would be helpful to any would-be reader-sleuth. Yet Base insists the mystery can be solved by any attentive youngster.

The son of a civil engineer, Base grew up in Melbourne, graduated from a local technical college and worked briefly illustrating newspaper and magazine ads. His first children’s title, My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch, was a modest success, but in those days Base had two careers: He also played piano in the rock band with which his future wife, Robyn Paterson, sang. Luckily, when the band folded in 1985, Base had completed Animalia—an alliterative, whimsically illustrated alphabet book (featuring, for example, “unruly unicorns upending urns of ultramarine umbrellas”). Animalia sold half a million copies around the world, while Base and Robyn traveled the world themselves for 10 months. They are now settled in Melbourne and hope to have children soon.

Many of the drawings in The Eleventh Hour were inspired by sketches from Base’s trip: Egyptian temples, Scottish castles, St. Peter’s Basilica. Should the reader despair of spotting the clues hidden amid these visual riches, Base has provided the answer to his mystery in a sealed envelope at the back of the book. “I don’t care if people cheat,” he says. “It’s just as much fun going back and finding out how it was done. But the more the reader tries to rise to the challenge, the more the book gives back.”

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