This issue of Books for Keeps has even more books in it than usual. Plenty here we hope to entertain and inform you as the term draws to a close and to keep you occupied over Christmas as you decide what it would be nice’ to buy for home, school or library – if you only had any money’ left to spend! There’s news’ of the end-of-year children’s book awards (page 18) including the first run out for the Smarties Prize, the most valuable in money terms (unless a children’s book takes the £18,000 for the overall winner of the Whitbread Award in January; quite a possibility with Janni Howker’s current form).
The Smarties Prize didn’t quite get the Booker-style coverage; but then it took the Booker many years to get to the super-hype status it now has. Coming into the limelight at last this year though was Children’s Book Week: a Tuesday Call phone-in with Bob Leeson and Julia Eccleshare, Woman’s Hour, Bookshelf, bits – on TV. Was it all because of The Train? That certainly seems to have aroused a lot of interest and earned its keep in publicity and books sold. However the individual experiences of adults and children meeting the train on its nationwide tour varied as our report (page 14) shows. To be realistic it was inevitable that things would go wrong, that the organisers wouldn’t be able to maintain the same level of activity throughout, that everyone learned a lot and would do it better next time. But what a pity that such an imaginative venture should prove disappointing and even demotivating for some of the very people who in the end are the most important of all – the readers, buyers and borrowers of books.
So let’s get back to the books. We’ve got very excited about Nursery Rhymes as you can see (page 4). With so many excellent: collections available there should be no question of not making the most of the potential of this marvellously rich resource. Eric Hadley’s article should give us all something to think about; as does Eric’s latest book, English in the Middle Years (Arnold, 0 7131 0971 8, £4.95). Describing how his own ideas have changed and developed over years working with children he makes a strong and plausible case for particular approaches to developing children as writers and readers. It’s highly personal and anecdotal, challenging and helpful; well worth reading for anyone who cares, as Eric does, about children and literature.
And there’s our own end-of-year selection which this time we have called That Extra Something (page 20). Making the selection I was struck by how derivative some of this season’s titles were. Perhaps that is too derogatory, after all imitation is the sincerest form of flattery they say; all creative artists have `influences’ and many of the books that came into this category were really rather good. Nevertheless I couldn’t help remarking the influence of Briggs’ The Snowman, Shirley Hughes’ Up and Up and Jill Murphy’s Whatever Next! on John Prater’s The Gift (Bodley Head. £5.95) in which two children fly off on an imaginary and imaginative journey in a cardboard box which contained a rather mundane present. Equal Pamela Allen’s riotous A Lion in the Night (Hamish Hamilton, £5.95) owes a lot to Sendak, Pat Hutchins, the Berenstains’ Bears in the Night and especially Briggs and Vipont’s The Elephant and the Bad Baby; and Lyn and Richard Howell’s split page technique and storyline in Winifred’s New Bed (Hamish Hamilton, £5.95) owes even more to Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Then there are all the gimmicks. The nicest is Methuen’s My Own Book Bag (£4.95) a bright, strong little PVC bag (picture of Miffy on one side, Bear on the other) containing two Bruna books. Just right for taking books to and from playgroup and school. And every publisher it seems is finding some way into do-it-yourself, choose-your-own adventure. Oxford have got Steve Jackson (of Puffin Fighting Fantasy) involved with illustrator Stephen Lavis on a Masquerade-type puzzle picture quest in The Tasks of Tantalon (£5.95). Just to keep it neat and in the family David Fickling, Steve Jackson’s editor at Oxford, has created (with Perry Hinton) his own Fantasy Questbooks for Puffin.’ The Path of Peril (murdered explorer, assorted clues, treasure to be found) and Starflight Zero (the galaxy to save) are now with us (£2.95). Puffin are offering a bottle of champagne to the first two adults to solve the mystery and £20 of Puffins to the first two children. I’d still be struggling to sort it out as we ran up to Christmas 2000 but I dare say by the time you read this the books and the champagne will have been won already.
Inch High Newcomer
An artist we associate with originality rather than gimmickry is Peter Firmin. His long association with Oliver Postgate has produced Noggin the Nog. Bagpuss, and Ivor the Engine, and his own illustrated stories of Basil Brush (he makes the puppet) are still very popular with young readers. His latest characters are Pinny and Victor, two one inch high dolls who have all manner of miniature adventures in three new Pinny Books from Deutsch (£1.95 each, hbk).
Peter Firmin is a great maker of things so it was no surprise to discover that before writing about Pinny and Victor he had carved them both from hard wood. They are based on traditional ‘Dutch dolls’ first made in the eighteenth century, with jointed knees and elbows that really work, and carefully – painted with tiny shoes, little red mouths and dots for eyes. His interest was aroused when, after making the puppets for the TV – film Tottie and the Dolls House, he was sent a tiny one inch tall doll to mend. ‘The lady who sent her said the doll was 150 years old and her name was Sarah. She lived in a – tortoise-shell box and was known as The Smallest Doll in the World. With the aid of a magnifying glass and some very tiny tools I made her a new arm and fixed it; but before – I sent her back I made a copy to add to my collection of toys. Since then I’ve been shown others. One is kept in a blue egg-shell and tiny gold letters proclaim her TheSmallest Doll in the World. I was even shown one in a museum that was only half the size. But I have never seen another Victor with his blue sailor suit. I think he may be unique. I wanted to write some stories for my grandchildren so naturally these dolls became the main characters – that’s when I named them Pinny and Victor.’ I’m sure there will be lots more young readers besides Peter Firmin’s grandchildren who will be delighted and intrigued by these books.
Two other originals are Tony Ross and Bernard Ashley. We’ve been looking forward to featuring Tony Ross in an Authorgraph for some time and our special end of the year issue seemed just the right place (page 12). Writer as well as artist, Tony Ross manages to delight adults and children equally. He is a highly original talent, one to relish. Tony Ross’ Towser has made a big hit on TV, and TV and films are fast becoming familiar ground for Bernard Ashley.’ Not long ago we did a big Sound and Vision feature on the TV adaptation of Break in the Sun. Now Bernard has scripted his first screenplay for Running Scared (page 16) and a film version of Terry on the Fence made by the Children’s Film and Television Foundation was part of the Junior London Film Festival. The press releases credit primary head Bernard with a `remarkable understanding of the criminal mind’. We’ll have to ask him where he got it!
Inevitably there has also been a wave of publishing in advance of the arrival of Halley’s Comet. For those who know little about astronomy but want (or feel forced) to take an interest three books seem to offer information and guidance in an accessible and interest-arousing way. All three are called Halley’s Comet! The spiral bound, glossy volume by Francis Reddy (Pan, 0 330 29164 5, £7.95) is expensive but it is well-designed, has a large percentage of full colour plates, a model to cut out and assemble, a large colour poster and the most easily understood where-to-see-it sky maps I have yet encountered. The text answers most questions and mercifully avoids jargon. Cheaper and most readable of all is Peter Wragg’s book from Knight (0 340 38087 X, £1.50). Its conversational tone and clear exposition really helped me to understand what was going on. Patrick Moore and Heather Couper’s book is a pop-up, and a very educational one too which brilliantly uses the form to show and explain (Dean, 0 603 00446 6,£7.95). With our eyes on the heavens will we notice what’s happening back at the ranch? Are Corgi showing the way in children’s books (page 24)? If you glance down in January you’ll find approximately a million and a half Cadbury’s Drinking Chocolate tins bearing a label which entitles the sender to a £l voucher from Penguin redeemable at shops in the Book Tokens scheme.
We’ll be back in January with a special focus on non-fiction and an expanded paperback review section to keep you up-to-date.
Meanwhile, happy holidays.