Nancy Chambers makes a personal selection of Books for Keeps for Christmas
Being asked to make a personal Christmas choice without having to stick to new titles or erect some artificial theme to hang the books on, is a great treat – something like going to a good bookshop with a big Book Token to spend. People don’t always buy books for keeps according to a worked-out pattern, so why not write about them – occasionally, anyway – in the same casual manner.
Looking at the pile of books I’ve just taken off various shelves, I realize the selection was actually dictated by the one I am leading off with. It’s a new book, based on an ancient book: Peter Dickinson’s City of Gold and Other Stories from the Old Testament, chosen not just because it’s biblical and Bibles = Christmas but because it’s such an ingenious and sensible way to recast highly venerated material. As a parson’s daughter I’ve met the Bible in everything from the Authorized Version to Sunday-school renderings that would out-Ladybird Ladybird, and am generally wary of anything but good King James. Peter Dickinson, however, has been wise enough not to tackle the texts head on but to take a parallel course: well-known stories are retailed as if by different storytellers at varying distances from the actual events. And it works beautifully.
Michael Foreman’s illustrations for City of Gold present an experience separate from the text – and that works too. He is always impressive, and almost always gives you something to go back to. (Every time I look at the book, I turn to the picture in ‘The Twelfth Plague’; I need to remind myself that what I saw is what’s there.) How amazing to have Dickinson’s writing and over thirty Foreman full-colour plates, plus many black-and-white drawings, all for £5.95. It’s a family book for a lifetime, for sure.
Having chosen City of Gold, and thinking about books that are bound to last, I was led naturally to two other Gollancz titles. Retellings of folk and fairy tales can be slightly worrying to adult selectors (like me) who aren’t experts – and, anyway, if the book is for children, doesn’t accessibility matter more than authenticity? As it happens, we don’t have to make that decision in this instance. The Gollancz collections of Grimm and Andersen are impeccable textually (you don’t have to take my word for it; on publication the books were thoroughly approved by all but the most querulous experts) and entirely approachable. Read any page in either Hans Andersen: His Classic Fairy Tales or The Brothers Grimm: Popular Folk Tales and you’ll see that the language is clear and tasty; read an entire story, and you may feel you’ve discovered it for the first time.
Both books are illustrated by Michael Foreman and have the same elegant production as City of Gold. The very fact of that physical similarity made me think of the edition of Grimm from the thirties that has been my favourite for years: Wanda Gag’s Tales from Grimm. Her homely drawings and storytelling style are wholly of a piece. She recounts the tales as if they were hers, a nice difference from more purely translated versions.
I can’t leave Grimm without recommending what has to be the definitive edition so far as illustration goes: The Juniper Tree illustrated by Maurice Sendak. It’s probably safe to say that no other contemporary artist will ever so completely fit Grimm. What a lucky coincidence that The Juniper Tree is also a bargain: £2.50 for 332 pages of the superbly produced paperback (it’s a boxed, two-volume set in hardback). Bodley Head do the paperback edition as well as the hardback, so it may not be quite as easy to come by as a Puffin or Lion or Beaver. The paperback is worth persisting for, I think, not only because of Sendak but because it’s such a marvellous square, chunky, classy thing to hold. I can’t think of another paperback like it, on any subject, anywhere.
Thinking of Sendak, of books that are pleasant to handle, and still in the folk and fairy tale mood, I went to a book published in England in 1972, but which appeared first in 1959. Seven Tales by Hans Christian Andersen has the best-known stories printed in large well-leaded type and luxuriously wide margins with line illustration on nearly every page and a number of full-page, full-colour pictures by Maurice Sendak in his pre-Wild Things form. As with Grimm, there are lots of ways to own Andersen. This friendly version would be nice to have for younger children.
Once you start looking at various renditions of traditional tales, all kinds of fleeting thoughts occur – where they come from, what they mean, how true it is that they really do belong to us all. New in paperback, Iona and Peter Opie’s The Classic Fairy Tales brings a lot of information together in a readable commentary that links twenty-four of the best-known tales as told in their first English publication. Although published for adults, there’s plenty in it to interest younger people – again, a family book, and one that can be used in more than the obvious ways.
Another new paperback takes me away from traditional tales to the other half of the heart of literature, poetry. Faber have just done Peacock Pie in their Fanfare series, and although Walter de la Mare may not be at the top of every modem child’s rhyme time, he is a good choice to go along with the sure-fire current writing that is giving poetry such a good name among more children than ever before. Christina Rossetti’s Sing-Song in the splendid Dover paperback facsimile is another single-poet collection that provides a change of pace from the more commonly recommended collections. Both books carry the clear voice of the individual poet, and are fully and effectively illustrated (Edward Ardizzone for Peacock Pie and Arthur Hughes for Sing-Song); at just over a pound each, it would hardly be a big risk to try them out with any child who is still open to poetry at around nine.
That last sentence opens a whole other tin of beans, one that can’t be chewed over in this short piece, so I’ll quickly shift to my last couple of books. Staying in the way-books-look vein, it was the eccentric appearance of The Adventures of Uncle Lubin that made me give it to a seven-year-old recently; he’s totally mechanically minded, and doesn’t spend much solo time with books that aren’t about earth-moving machines. The plentiful, daft but precise Heath Robinson illustrations, the unbookish way the type appears on the page, the very fact that it looks like a proper story book outside but isn’t inside – whatever the reason, my engineering friend worked his way through it once, and nearly twice, on the day he got it. I’m sure he didn’t realize, but I find it fascinating, that the book was originally published in 1902. So much for ‘old-fashioned’.
There is something too about the look of Rabbit Hill that is inviting, or at any rate interesting: text and illustrations printed in brown ink rather than black; type size fairly small but with lots of leading; very cleanly drawn funny/sentimental pictures; and terrific chapter titles like ‘Reading Rots the Mind’. The storyline is not wildly original – domesticized animals fearing interlopers, mainly (it’s nothing like Watership Down, which came thirty years later anyway) – but the comfortable Yankee telling and wayward characters make it more than a read-once book.
Details of books mentioned
City of Gold and Other Stories from the Old Testament
Peter Dickinson, Gollancz, 0 575 02883 1, £5.95
Hans Andersen: His Classic Fairy Tales
Erik Haugaard, Gollancz, 0 575 02188 8, £4.50
The Brothers Grimm: Popular Folk Tales
Brian Alderson, Gollancz, 0 575 02446 1, £5.00
Tales from Grimm
Wanda Gag, Faber, 0 571 06779 4, £2.35 Faber Paperbacks, 0 571 10209 3, 95p
The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm
Lore Segal, Randall Jarrell and Maurice Sendak, Bodley Head, 2-volume boxed set, 0 370 01 276 3, £9.95 Bodley Head, 0 370 30059 9, £2.50
Seven Tales by Hans Christian Andersen
Eva le Gallienne, World’s Work, 0 437 23050 3, £4.50
The Classic Fairy Tales
Iona and Peter Opie, OUP, 0 19 211559 6, £5.95 Granada Paladin, 0 586 08335 9, £3.95
Walter de la Mare, Faber, 0 571 04683 5, £3.25
Faber Fanfares, 0 571 18014 0, £1.25
Christina Rossetti, Dover/Constable, 0 486 22107 5, £1.35
The Adventures of Uncle Lubin
W Heath Robinson, Puffin, 0 14 03.0756 7, 40p
Robert Lawson, Puffin, 0 14 03.1010 X, 75p
Nancy Chambers is the Editor of Signal, a magazine about children’s books which first appeared in January 1970. Signal was not Nancy Chambers’ first foray into magazines. In the United States, where she was born, she worked on The Horn Book, and when she came to this country in the sixties she was editor of Children’s Book News (now no more), a review journal produced by the Children’s Book Centre, London. In 1969, after her marriage to Aidan Chambers, she resigned from CBN and concentrated on living in Gloucestershire and producing Signal.
Signal was intended ‘to provide. a publishing opportunity for people whose ideas about, and interests in, children’s books could not be contained in brief articles or reviews’. It was addressed to ‘individuals who were more than fleetingly attentive to the subject’, and concerned with ‘the thoughtful consideration of children’s books, their authors and their illustrators’.
It has now appeared three times a year for ten years. To celebrate the anniversary Kestrel have published The Signal Approach to Children’s Books (0 7226 5641 6, £12.50) a collection, edited by Nancy Chambers. It includes articles originally published in Signal, and three pieces specially commissioned for the book (one is a Review of the Seventies by Elaine Moss).
It is a splendid book for dipping into: informative, stimulating, irritating and thought-provoking.
Signal is published by The Thimble Press, Lockwood, Station Road, South Woodchester, Stroud, Glos GL5 5EQ
Three issues a year £3.60 (Single copies £1.20)