Instead of going ahead to explore the horizons of a new millennium, most of the books published for Christmas 2000 seem to be celebrating – and re-interpreting – the traditions of times past. Nowhere is this more evident than in the number of thoughtful retellings of classic fairy tales… Joanna Carey discusses these and other beautiful books for giving.
In Fairy Tales Berlie Doherty in collaboration with illustrator Jane Ray has chosen twelve well known stories. It’s a beautifully produced, well proportioned book with rich mulberry endpapers and a fine, firm, rose-tinted binding. Text and illustrations are set, gilt-edged, against a background of what must surely be swatches of fairy fabrics and enchanted wallpapers. Ray is famed for her highly decorative work… exotic doe-eyed princesses, usually seen in profile, in leafy bowers under star spangled skies… But here she extends her range magnificently: throughout the book, and especially in Snow White, spirited silhouettes in the style of Rackham weave intricate threads of narrative detail into the rich textures of Doherty’s fine retelling. And in Rumpelstiltskin, the picture of the miller’s daughter contemplating the mountain of straw, with just a plain inky blue border, is both beautiful and eloquent in its simplicity.
In The Kingfisher Book of Fairy Tales Vivian French’s robust storytelling is aided and abetted by outbreaks of exuberant typography. With a slightly different emphasis, Peter Malone creates magical effects with unusual close-toned colours, atmospheric lighting and Italianate backdrops. A large format illustrated book like this has the ability to transform itself into a sort of lap-top theatre, so Malone’s stunning pictures have greatest impact when they’re allowed to occupy the whole page. And there are some great characters here, and while their gestures are purposefully stagey and formal, when they make eye contact with you, like the doltish Jack, the siren Cinderella – striking quite a challenging attitude, with her mop and bucket – the upwardly mobile wife of the fisherman, or the angelic miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin, they are absolutely unforgettable – and you keep turning back the pages to have another look.
Unlike Doherty and French, Kevin Crossley-Holland, the author of Enchantment: Fairy Tales, Ghost Stories and Tales of Wonder, sees no need for an introduction to his collection: he simply hurtles you into the path of the oncoming stories, the first of which is an alarming Irish folk tale about a pair of severed feet… There’s an East Anglian version of Rumpelstiltskin (Tom Tit Tot) and a rather different Cinderella – Mossycoat. And at the end, a real sting-in-the-tail – Boo! These eminently read aloud stories have an irresistible urgency that’s brilliantly reflected in Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrations: full of movement and veiled in subtle dark washes of colour, her drawings are deliciously scary, funny and romantic all at the same time.
Fly, Eagle, Fly! is an adaptation by Christopher Gregorowski of a thought-provoking African fable about an eagle brought up amongst chickens: rather like the ugly duckling, he has no sense of his own identity. Set in an African village, the people, the birds, animals and the glorious landscape are beautifully portrayed in Niki Daly’s loose but authoritative brush drawings and as the story moves to its soaring climax his subtle fluid watercolours express all the vastness of the African landscape.
Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep is a twentieth-century fairy tale by Eleanor Farjeon about a child who learns to skip with the fairies and goes on to become a symbol of freedom… a life-enhancing tale, it’s been illustrated by a number of different artists but now gets new lift-off as a large format picture book. Charlotte Voake draws as Elsie Piddock skips ‘as never so’ and the sheer energy of her dancing calligraphic line and her breezy brushwork will keep this enchanting story airborne for at least another 100 years.
In total contrast, Paul Birkbeck’s highly finished, meticulous artwork creates the perfect setting for Fiona Waters’ retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor and the Nightingale. With obsessive, almost overwhelming attention to detail, Birkbeck cunningly captures every nuance of the extravagantly polished, claustrophobic man-made opulence of the emperor’s court, against which that poor nightingale seems so drab and ordinary…
There seldom seems to be a moment when at least one of the great children’s classics isn’t being re-illustrated – Inga Moore, with evocative watercolours full of engrossing detail and witty characterisation, has made The Wind in the Willows accessible to a much younger readership, just as Helen Oxenbury has done with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s interesting to learn that even by 1930 Alice had been illustrated by a huge variety of artists. American author/collector Cooper Edens has brought over 30 of them together in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: A Classic Illustrated Edition. With John Tenniel, Arthur Rackham, Willy Pogany and Charles Folkard rubbing shoulders with Margaret Tarrant and Mabel Lucie Attwell et al, there are naturally problems with ‘continuity’ here, but this extraordinary collection throws up some rare and wonderful surprises – and will probably inspire some future Alice illustrators.
Edward Ardizzone, whose mercurial line and wash drawings have influenced legions of contemporary illustrators, was born 100 years ago this autumn. In celebration, over the last 12 months all the Little Tim books have been re-issued – 11 stories of friendship, loyalty, heroism and adventure on the high seas. As a storyteller Ardizzone had the ultimate freedom of being both author and artist: he knew instinctively how to balance these skills and how to integrate words and pictures on the page. Tim All Alone, in which a little boy sets out on a quest for his long lost mother, is my favourite, but these stories are addictive so really a full set is essential.
Over recent years we’ve come to accept that the traditional image of the snaggle-toothed hump-backed witch is no longer appropriate in modern fairy tales. But, merrily flying in the face of political correctness, William Steig brings us Wizzil, a hideous, scribble-haired stinky old witch who delights in the misfortunes of others. But, when Wizzil accidentally falls in the river, it’s the first good wash she’s ever had – and hey! she’s now a ‘surprisingly sweet old lady!’ Thus cleansed and purified, with a nice print dress and a bunch of flowers, she finds happiness with a good (if not classically handsome) husband. Quentin Blake is the illustrator and with his vigorous line, his mischievous characterisation, his mercurial wit and the lightning changes of atmosphere he creates with colour and composition, only he could get away with it…
In Beware of the Storybook Wolves Herb is terrified to be left alone with his fairy tales – he thinks the wolf will get out of the book in the night… and of course, one night, his worst fears are realized. But with great presence of mind, by literally shaking her out of the book, Herb manages to enlist the help of the fairy godmother… With vivid colours, giddy compositions, witty collages and some kaleidoscopic bursts of intertextuality, Lauren Child gives this very funny and original book some inventive twists. But…one can imagine the scene at many bedtime readings. Yes… the drawings of the wolf are quite fierce and scratchy but they AREN’T frightening because you can SEE they aren’t real… look! you can SEE that they’re only paper cut-outs… But in my experience children aren’t always open to rational explanations like that…
Little Fern’s First Winter is about a baby rabbit. Jane Simmons has a lovely sense of scale and knows exactly where to place things on the page for maximum effect. When Fern leaves the burrow to play outside, she looks big and bold but we quickly realize how tiny, how vulnerable she is against the vast tree trunks and the lowering sky – and the snow. With big swooshy brushstrokes and muted wintry colours this lovely picture book has a real painterly feel to it – and will surely inspire young artists to be bold and free with their brushes.
Madlenka is a stunningly adventurous new picture book. Starting in outer space and zooming in on planet earth with maps, aerial views and street plans that have the texture and detail of ancient engravings, Peter Sis uses all the tricks of scale and perspective to home in on the life of a little girl in a crowded modern inner-city neighbourhood, who feels – as every child has the right to feel – that she is at the centre of the universe. Madlenka has a wobbly tooth and she wants the world to know – so she races round the block to tell the shopkeepers in her multicultural community. She’s richly rewarded with friendly greetings in a whole variety of languages, and hidden behind all the shop fronts are magical spreads illuminating the myriad stories, traditions and cultures that make up her world. Appealing across a wide age range, this subtle inventive multifaceted book will invite – and reward – hours of exploration.
Art books – it goes without saying – make wonderful picture books for children of all ages. And even very young children will be intrigued by the fur tea-cup, the lobster telephone, the giant apple and other mysterious images in Surrealism: A World of Dreams! by Linda Bolton. Chagall, de Chirico, Magritte and Salvador Dali are among the artists Bolton explores in an easy accessible way. Anthony Browne often makes inventive use of surrealist imagery – as in the dream inspired tableaux in Willy the Dreamer – where figures from popular culture mingle with references to artists such as Dali and de Chirico. And in his latest book Browne takes a broader swipe at art history with a new look at the old masters. Willy’s Pictures is an entertainingly ‘off the wall’ introduction to the paintings of Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Poussin, etc. (a jokey book that aims to get children into galleries to seek out the originals).
Eric Carle has always vowed that he’d never do ‘a Christmas book’ – but he clearly couldn’t resist it when he had the idea for Dream Snow, a cheery tale about a farm. On Christmas Eve a sleepy farmer dreams of snow… and soon, with the help of white blobs on acetate overlays, the farmer – and each of the animals – is covered with a thick blanket of snow, so you have to guess from the shapes which is which. The transformations are exciting – and the collage illustrations, full of vibrant colour, pattern and textural variety, are enriched not just by the scattering of snowflakes, but also by the irresistible tactile quality of the glossy overlays… and by the celestial tinkling sound that occurs on the last page. As always the bold shapes and rich colours of Carle’s collages will provide readers with a wealth of artistic inspiration…
A Christmas Story by Brian Wildsmith was first published in 1989. This charming nativity story focuses on a little girl travelling to Bethlehem with a donkey. Against a glorious backdrop of moonlit fields and snowy landscapes, the child and the donkey are drawn with utmost delicacy, and Wildsmith illuminates every step of their way with sensitive use of gold. But gold is very differently handled on the cover, where the gentle beauty of the nativity scene, with its lacy quilt of snow, is somewhat undermined by a harsh metallic gold star which seems to have crash-landed on the stable roof in order to make way for the title.
Michael Foreman also gets a gold star for the cover of Cat in the Manger: a sideways look at the nativity story, told with gentle humour from the point of view of a peevish cat who’s been unceremoniously tipped out of his bed to make room for a baby… Foreman’s atmospheric endpapers and his lovely drawings of the warm, dark stable interior, the animals, and above all, the mother and child are honest, natural, un-mannered and observed with real tenderness.
With around 80 poets – ranging from George Herbert and William Blake, through Walter de la Mare and R S Thomas to Jackie Kay and Benjamin Zephaniah – The Young Oxford Book of Christmas Poems is fascinating in its diversity. BUT if you are also interested in the illustrations (of which there are many) it’s INFURIATING – artists’ names are hidden away at the back of the book in the very smallest print. While I recognized Stephen Lambert’s style, illustrating poems by Ted Hughes and John Mole – in particular ‘Christmas at Sea’ by RLS – it took me ages to discover that it is Emma Harding who so beautifully illuminates ‘The Animals’ Carol’ by Charles Causley. Why on earth don’t they credit artists along with poets?
George and Lily’s Christmas Present is a small picture book about two little dogs – one white, one black. Needing a present for their teacher, they decide to make her a raincoat out of George’s parents’ shower curtain. The first step is to put a chair in the bath… The hand written text is minimal, but the paintings – craftily composed and executed with a purposeful naivety in generous daubs of cerulean, viridian, vermilion and rich terra cotta – take you through every comic detail of George and Lily’s ambitious DIY project. A gem: deceptively simple, deliciously funny. Look for others in this series.
For Every Child is not exactly a Christmas story, but what better time to let children know about their rights – as drawn up by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? This lovely book presents 14 of the principles, each one expressed in a way that can be understood by children themselves, and each one has an illustration. Artists include Babette Cole, Satoshi Kitamura, Shirley Hughes, Claudio Muñoz, Yang Tswei-yu, so this is a picture book of impressive diversity. While Shirley Hughes’ intensely moving illustration asks that children be given shelter in times of war, and Claudio Muñoz makes a powerful plea that children should be protected from violence, and Rabindra and Amrit Kaur Singh ask that religious diversity should be respected, John Burningham strikes a lighter note with right no. 13. With a caption that reads ‘Allow us to tell you what we are thinking or feeling. Whether we whisper or shout it…listen to us and hear what we say.’, he shows a boy on tiptoe urgently whispering to his father while in the background his bicycle is being eaten by a crocodile.
Joanna Carey is a writer and illustrator.
Fairy Tales, Berlie Doherty, ill. Jane Ray, Walker, 0 7445 6115 9, £14.99 hbk
The Kingfisher Book of Fairy Tales, Vivian French, ill. Peter Malone, Kingfisher, 0 7534 0394 3, £14.99 hbk
Enchantment: Fairy Tales, Ghost Stories and Tales of Wonder, Kevin Crossley-Holland, ill. Emma Chichester Clark, Orion, 1 85881 692 0, £12.99 hbk
Fly, Eagle, Fly!, adapted by Christopher Gregorowski, ill. Niki Daly, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1730 0, £10.99 hbk
Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep, Eleanor Farjeon, ill. Charlotte Voake, Walker, 0 7445 4973 6, £10.99 hbk
The Emperor and the Nightingale, Hans Christian Andersen, retold by Fiona Waters, ill. Paul Birkbeck, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4701 7, £5.99 pbk
The Wind in the Willows , Kenneth Grahame, ill. Inga Moore, Walker, 0 7445 7553 2, £14.99 hbk
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: A Classic Illustrated Edition, Lewis Carroll, compiled by Cooper Edens, Chronicle Books (dist. Ragged Bears), 0 8118 2274 5, £13.99 hbk
Tim All Alone, Edward Ardizzone, Scholastic, 0 439 01043 8, £9.99 hbk
Wizzil, William Steig, ill. Quentin Blake, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 5032 8, £9.99 hbk
Beware of the Storybook Wolves, Lauren Child, Hodder, 0 340 77915 2, £9.99 hbk
Little Fern’s First Winter, Jane Simmons, Orchard, 1 86039 988 6, £9.99 hbk
Madlenka, Peter Sis, Allen & Unwin, 1 86508 293 7, £9.99 hbk
Surrealism: A World of Dreams!, Linda Bolton, Belitha ‘Art Revolutions’, 1 84138 109 8, £9.99 hbk
Willy’s Pctures, Anthony Browne, Walker, 0 7445 6165 5, £10.99 hbk
Dream Snow, Eric Carle, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 14104 4, £12.99 hbk
A Christmas Story, Brian Wildsmith, Oxford, 0 19 272244 1, £4.99 pbk
Cat in the Manger, Michael Foreman, Andersen, 0 86264 927 7, £9.99 hbk
The Young Oxford Book of Christmas Poems, Oxford, 0 19 276252 4, £8.99 pbk
George and Lily’s Christmas Present, Anne Gutman and Georg Hallensleben, Cat’s Whiskers, 1 90301 221 X, £4.99 hbk
For Every Child, Hutchinson in association with UNICEF, 0 09 176815 2, £10.99 hbk