Margaret Meek on new books by old favourites
This review is a kind of catching-up, to discover how three authors I’ve known, enjoyed and been grateful to over a number of years are now ‘getting on’. (The ominous phrase haunts both children and adults.) Also, I’m always on the look-out for new experiences of what reading can be like, and how authors, illustrators and publishers show young readers, at every stage of skill and experience, what books are good for.
Picture books are, essentially, about transformations; readers see what changes as they are told what happens. Subtle artists exploit visual metamorphoses to show that the ordinary is not always the expected. Here is Brian Wildsmith, whose 1966 version of The Hare and the Tortoise epitomised a new era in learning to read, anticipating our new bi-lingualism. Marcus, the London mole, and his French cousin, Pierre, decide to cut through the difficulties that prevent their visiting each other by digging their way across the Channel. The result is a book called on one cover The Tunnel and on the other Le Tunnel (Oxford, 0 19 279962 2, £7.99). The text is in English and French from Marcus’ end, and in French and English from Pierre’s, each tactfully varied for cultural correctness. The cousins exchange computerised plans and surveys. Marcus endures the delays imposed by the illiterate Techno-rat, the complaints of the sea-dwellers (‘All our water will leak away’), but he finds buried treasure which lets him buy a mechanical digger. He pays his tolls to the sea monsters by beating them at darts. In the middle of the book, and the Channel, voila Pierre. He has survived the complaints of Le Rat-Bureaucrate, bored his way with a laser rock-grinder and won a game of boules. The pictures of thronged roads, traffic hold-ups, crowded skies and seaways all piled at the top of each page carry the argument for the obvious sense of going underground.
Skill and imagination solve problems reminiscent of the actualite, while the picture wheel shows what the cousins are joyously up to on arrival. The pictures are smaller than they were in the more spacious sixties; the production, like life, is more constrained, but still hopeful.
Moles are in. The handsome portrait format of M.O.L.E. by Russell Hoban and Jan Pienkowski (Cape, 0 224 03061 2, £9.99) with its fine-ribbed brown card endpapers and spacious print, proclaims a special collaboration of two acknowledged artists and their publisher. The picture sequence, we are told, came first: hand-painted etchings of the history of a pastoral world gradually overwhelmed by industrial gigantomachy. We are to see the changes from underground, through the senses of the ‘much overworked little earthmover’ (named by Adam), who endures the thumps and dangers of increasing urbanisation overhead. His closest shave is with electric cables mistaken for worms. The end nearly comes when ‘the soil seemed to have lost all hope – it was dry and crumbly and had a burnt out smell’. But Mole is saved by a new Deluge. ‘Find something that floats,’ Noah tells him. Who but Russell Hoban could thus blend wit, humour and apocalyptic vision. (Mole is on friendly terms with ‘the chap with the flaming sword’ at the gate of the garden.) This allusive skill (that is, the reader does at least half of the work) combines with biblical parable: apple eating results in ever more grandiose self-destruction.
Although moles are implicitly male, authors who have animal protagonists generally avoid the difficulties now associated with gender-related reading behaviour. Sue Pidgeon, writing with careful consideration of the evidence, and producing some of her own from school reading encounters in Reading the Difference (CLPE, 1 872267 05, £12.00) shows that the concept of gender difference is growing in children at the same time as they are learning to read. With this in mind, I’ve been looking at books by Michael Foreman whom I first encountered as a social satirist in the seventies. (Have you read War and Peas?) In his recent books, War Boy and War Game, he taps into a strong vein of family history and recollections which localise, bring home, national events, distinctly male in kind, as remembered experience. In his new picture book for younger readers, Grandfather’s Pencil and the Room of Stories (Andersen, 0 86264 457 7, £7.99) he illustrates a dream sequence in which a pencil, by itself, writes the story of its origin, together with that of the paper, the table, the window and the floorboards of the bedroom. The story satisfaction lies in the reader’s knowledge of the events, which the sleeping boy lacks, when the story begins again in the life of a grandson. The details in the pictures, London buses for example, establish the time line as they do in the war books, although here domestic gentleness is included with sailing and log-rolling. All these history-tinged books have what teachers say boys prefer to read about: adventure and information. So now, instead of simply agreeing that this is so, we should ask: how do girls read a story like Grandfather’s Pencil before their early constructs are set? Sue Pidgeon’s assertion that’ reading may be one of the behaviours that reflects and confirms gender identity, but it also has the potential to extend it’ suggests that’s where we could begin.