September and another school year. Time for something grand, exciting, larger than life. Time for a sense of perspective. Where better to find all that than in myths and legends, the theme for this issue of Books for Keeps. Kevin Crossley-Holland offers a persuasive invitation to the world of the Norse myths (page 4). His book for adults on the subject (Deutsch and Penguin) makes fascinating reading. We may be able to look forward to a children’s version from Deutsch next year. Meanwhile there are other sources to be found on our booklist (page 6).
Our cover is from a superb new picture-book version of Beowulf – a real super hero if ever there was one! Kevin Crossley-Holland and Charles Keeping share the honours in what appears to have been a collaboration without communication. Both are very familiar with the story: Kevin CrossleyHolland, an Anglo-Saxon scholar, has done a verse translation and a version for schools radio; Charles Keeping illustrated Rosemary Sutcliff’s Dragon Slayer. Both have their own ideas about it. You can read how Keeping approached doing the pictures on page 20. For Kevin Crossley-Holland it’s the story of a struggle between good and evil – black and white with no shades of grey except perhaps room to feel pity for the exiled Grendel because, although essentially evil, he is recognisably human and not a dragon or monster.
They worked independently but the result is a satisfyingly rich piece of storytelling, verbally and visually. They both will be discussing the book before an audience at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in October. It should be a fascinating encounter.
Printing The Highwayman
As the creator of so many picture books and twice winner of the Kate Greenaway Award, Charles Keeping had quite a lot to contribute to our exploration of how picture books are produced (see World of Children’s Books 4, The Production People, page 17). We went to talk to him at home in Bromley and found him working in his comfortably cluttered living room using his printing press as a desk, and surrounded by the piano, the television set, rows of stuffed dolls made by his daughter and all the paraphernalia of family life. ‘We’ve got thirteen rooms in this house but we all seem to end up in this one.’
On the wall behind him at the working end of the room hangs a collection of harness for carriage horses. For twelve years he kept a pony in the back garden (the garage was stable and coach house) and he still has four lovingly restored equipages. Horses were the first things he drew and he spent a lot of his childhood in the stables in Vauxhall Walk were he was born. Horses and London’s past fascinate him and on his press he produced the most beautiful lithographs of old London buildings, mostly stables. `I never exhibit them or sell them. I do them for my own pleasure.’
His other work he has to see reproduced in books. ‘If you saw the originals of The Highwayman next to the book you’d be surprised. There’s a tremendous amount lost. The originals are much richer, much more powerful, they’ve got more guts, more substance. Printing has softened them. The proofs I’ve seen of Beowulf look better, you can see it’s richer. And it’s the same printer. Maybe a different man made the plates. I’ve a great respect for printers but how it’s done does make a difference.’
Those were the Days
With both Charles Keeping and Brian Wildsmith in this issue we’ve got two legendary figures from our own golden age of picture books. And Brian reminded us of another, Mabel George, who started it all off at Oxford University Press. ‘She was a visionary. And she knew printing. She was merciless with printers. Look at the early editions of my books. The printing is beautiful.’
Looking back twenty years Brian Wildsmith remembers it as a time of high idealism. ‘We were trying to influence and educate children’s perceptiveness and awareness. Something’s happened. Somehow it’s all slipped away and we’re back to little mice in trousers.’ Well Pelican, Brian’s new book is certainly not that. It’s a 64 page (!) picture book of great charm and beauty – and it costs less than £5. Those co-editions Mabel dreamed up are still paying off.
Meg and Mog – fading away
I’m sure Brian Wildsmith would be less concerned about attitudes in books today if he spent some time with people like Jan Pienkowski and Jim Riordan (see page 26) who care very much. It was seeing Jan buying up a bunch of badly printed Picture Puffins to present to Tony Lacey, the editor at Puffins, that made me decide we needed to visit the Production People. The pages of the Meg and Mog books Jan picked out ranged from the rich bright shiny red they were meant to be to a dismal matt pinky brown. The customers at that book event learned a lot from the artist himself about what they were supposed to be getting.
We’ve also been spending time with another perfectionist, Raymond Briggs. But more about that in November, when we plop up again (Sorry, Fungus).
Meanwhile don’t forget to order lots of Extra copies for the kids. You won’t regret it.