Chris Powling looks at some newly-issued hardbacks
To survive as a classic, a book must retain integrity through infinite variation – a boardbook or pop-up, on tape or stage, condensed for the small screen, expanded for the big screen, animated, set to music and generally given the full multi-media, mass-market treatment. Sometimes, though, there’s a danger in staying close to the original … at least where prickly critics are concerned. For instance Random Century takes real risks with its new series ‘Little Greats’. This offers ten ‘favourite classic picture-books’ re-published in hardback but reduced to a standard format at a price-£3.99 each – not much more, these days, than a paperback. The last is the key point. Here we have a starter-kit for parents and teachers that’s both durable and affordable. It’s also in my view, a triumph.
Yes, certainly there’s a trade-off. The colours in Quentin Blake’s Mister Magnolia (1 85681 192 1) aren’t quite so rich as in the first edition (is it really more than a decade old already?) and it’s instructive how something so slight as a reduced margin in Edward Ardizzone’s Ship’s Cook Ginger (1 85681 132 8) can compromise its wonderful sense of space. Only Mr Potter’s Pigeon (1 85681 202 2), with which Reg Cartwright so astonished the Mother Goose panel back in 1979, really suffers, however, and – for me – not nearly enough to compromise this exercise in availability.
There are plenty of compensations, what’s more – having Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese’s The Story About Ping (1 85681 212 X) back in print, for example, or being reminded of early John Burningham by his admirable Borka (185681 172 7) published nearly thirty years ago. Bought as a batch, the set offers revealing comparisons even to beginners as they move from the bold words and images of Gene Zion and Margaret Bloy Graham in Harry the Dirty Dog (1 85681 162 X), so very fifties-ish, to the arch-literariness and painterliness of William Mayne and Nicola Bayley in The Patchwork Cat (1 85681 182 4) in 1981. Others in the set are welcome simply as affirmation of old favourites -Shirley Hughes’s Dogger (1 85681 152 2) or Pat Hutchins’ Titch (1 85681 142 5). Another, Jane Hissey’s Little Bear’s Trousers (1 85681 222 7), actually looks better in its new design.
But that’s arguable, of course. So is Random Century’s choice of this particular Top Ten, 1935-1986, to launch what they call a ‘classic collectable library’. Why not write to them with further suggestions? For this, surely, is a series which will run and run.
One mark of a classic text is quotability. Who hasn’t heard these lines?
‘… And always keep a hold of Nurse For fear of finding something worse.’
Jim, according to Hilaire Belloc, didn’t and fell foul of a lion as a consequence. Belloc’s Algernon and Other Cautionary Tales (0 224 03114 7), along with The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts (0 224 03154 6) and Matilda Who Told Such Dreadful Lies (0 224 03097 3), have just been re-issued at £7.99 each by Jonathan Cape in volumes illustrated by Quentin Blake, Tony Ross and Posy Simmonds respectively. They have a hard act to follow, let it be said. The original illustrator, using the initials B.T.B., was Lord Basil Blackwood who supplied drawings at least as funny as the words – albeit reflecting only too well Belloc’s tendency to be anti-semitic. No trace of that here, I’m glad to say, as each artist rises splendidly to occasional verses which specialise in the sort of taboo-on-tenderness guaranteed to delight youngsters and send critics of nervous or high-minded disposition screaming for other covers:
‘For every time she shouted “Fire!”
They only answered “Little Liar!”
And therefore when her Aunt
Matilda, and the House, were burned.’
Today’s children won’t need this namesake to remind them of Belloc’s spiritual successor -though curiously Roald Dahl’s most celebrated illustrator fares least well of the three. The typeface of Algernon is so at odds with Quentin Blake s spikily inventive drawings that it’s hard to believe their uncharacteristically sombre colouring isn’t some kind of protest. More satisfying overall is the tinted cartoonery of Tony Ross’s volume and the tongue-in-cheek drollness of Posy Simmonds’. All three books beg for performance.
But then, according to Edward Blishen, so do all the classics. In his introduction to Children’s Classics to Read Aloud published by Kingfisher (0 86272 787 1, f9.95), he declares:
‘… hearing a book read aloud as well as possible is no form of idleness: it is a great stimulant of the imagination, as well as being one of the best means of helping us to feel the shape of the language, its rhythms, the great richness of the words and the thrilling effect of the surprisingly right word in the surprisingly right place.’
Wise words. Of course, you must pick the right passages at the outset. As a writer, broadcaster and former teacher, few are better able to do this than Edward Blishen himself who offers a personal choice of extracts aiming at both adult and child appeal, lasting quality, a wide-range of ages, tastes and provenance, yet – while luring the reader back to the full-length version – retaining some sense of completeness.
Astonishingly, the collection scores a bulls-eye on all these targets. True, some will quibble over what’s missing as well as what’s there – F Anstey and Norman Lindsay instead of, say, John Ruskin and Richmal Crompton? – but quibbling is all it will be. We’re even told how long each reading will last: from eight minutes for the shortest (Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes’) to 35 minutes for the longest (from Anstey’s ‘Vice Versa’). Backed-up by linking commentary of Edward Blishen’s own as well as a word guide and colour-plates from leading contemporary illustrators, this is an anthology of classic texts which already has the feel of a classic anthology.