Claude Monet ¦ Emmeline Pankhurst ¦ Frederic Chopin ¦ Isambard Kingdom Brunel ¦ Vincent van Gogh
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The cover of this issue is a design incorporating illustrations from four books illustrated by the subject of our Authorgraph, Ian Beck. The top left illustration is from Five Little Ducks (Orchard), the top right from Poppy and Pip's Picnic (to be published Autumn '97 by HarperCollins), the bottom left from The Owl and the Pussy-cat (Transworld) and the bottom right from Home Before Dark (to be published September '97 by Scholastic). Ian Beck's Picture Book (Hippo) is reviewed in this issue.
Beck talks to BfK's interviewer, Julia Eccleshare, also in this issue. His distinctive decorative style with its sensitive pen line and cross hatching has a nostalgic but sometimes also a surreal quality - he describes it as 'a look that is floating, strong and wistful all at the same time'.
Thanks to Orchard, HarperCollins, Transworld and Scholastic for their help in producing this composite cover.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
These non-fiction books are extremely handsomely produced ones; the quality of illustration is quite superb. Emmeline Pankhurst includes many contemporary photographs which evoke the feeling of the age, whilst the two books on artists are graced by some gorgeous colour reproductions of the masterpieces.
The books are designed to be read as narrative although the underlying structure remains the double-page (but, thankfully, without headings). However, their texts are spare and lacking any atmosphere:
'In 1825, Isambard's father began to make a tunnel under the River Thames, in London. The tunnel was called the Thames Tunnel. It was dug by miners. They knew about digging tunnels. There were many problems.'
We are told the river burst into the tunnel, we are told that it took eighteen years to finish it but there is no attempt to engage the reader in considering the sheer size of the task, the ingenuity of the techniques used or the massive human effort that was needed. The print that runs across the bottom of the page begins to hint at it but surely the main text should get the reader to think. The author might argue shortage of space but do we need to know that Brunel's father was knighted by Queen Victoria, that she was the first British monarch to go on a train or that Brunel's wife 'liked to ride horses, dress in fine clothes and give parties for all her friends'?
Similarly in Emmeline Pankhurst we get little sense of the sheer passion of this woman. After visiting the slums of Manchester 'She decided there was only one way to change things for the better - and that was to give women the vote.' How this might effect change is not dealt with at all.
All these books suffer from this central failing. They don't get to the heart of the subjects. But if not fully satisfying, these titles do have enough strong points to make them worth buying selectively. Put them on the non-fiction shelves where they will serve for older readers with Special Needs as well as the target age group.