What better war to start the first BfK of a new school year (a year that was promising to be difficult and exhausting even before the summer holiday started) than with a celebration? The Hobbit is fifty this month. Not a particularly advanced age in Bilbo Baggins’ terms; but enough of a literary landmark to encourage us to try to assess Tolkien’s impact on children’s fantasy generally. No easy task but one which Jessica Yates, well-known for her enthusiasm for Tolkien and for this genre. approached with characteristic vigour. Her survey of fifty years of publishing in this area makes fascinating reading: and offers a life-line of titles and authors to those of us for whom this branch of fiction is literally a closed book (See pages 4-7). Jessica, drawing on her current research and her past experience as a school librarian, talks convincingly of large numbers of readers – actual and potential, and particularly among teenagers – for this kind of writing. She is pleased but not surprised that her recommendation, David Edding’s The Belgariad, also appears in Keith Barker’s new list Bridging the Gap (see page 28) in the section of books particularly recommended to Keith by teenage readers. And she can’t understand why paperback editors are so resistant to reissuing Hobberdy Dick and Kate Crackernuts, two fantasies for children by the late K. M. Briggs. Kathleen Briggs was best-known as a folklore historian and these two stories draw on that knowledge. Hobberdy Dick, first published in 1955 well ahead of the flood of ‘folklore fanatasies’ (Jessica’s phrase) of the sixties, features a hob – the household spirit-of an Oxfordshire manor house in the Civil War. Its exciting climax involves the ancient Rollright Stories – a familiar landmark in many children’s stories since. Kate Crackernuts, for older readers, is also set in the seventeenth century; it’s about the witch cult in Scotland and although out of print for five years is well worth seeking out in libraries.
Epic (and folklore) fantasy presents a challenge which many illustrators delight in. Stephen Lavis whose cover illustration for the Puffin edition of The Hounds of the Morrigan appears on our cover was also commissioned to do new covers for the Chronicles of Narnia when they moved from Puffin to Fontana. There was much discussion among enthusiasts when these appeared. And comparison with the original Pauline Baynes’ illustrations which had acquired something of the status of a national institution. Interestingly Pauline Baynes came to the Narnia books on Tolkien’s recommendation. Her first major work was for Farmer Giles of Ham; Tolkien liked what she did with his story and mentioned her to C. S. Lewis. Miss Baynes is now one of our most distinguished illustrators, still producing beautifully designed books-the most recent All Things Bright and Beautiful for Lutterworth.
It’s tempting to speculate how Tolkien would have reacted to Michael Hague’s work for the newly illustrated version of The Hobbit. (His own illustrations were used in the early editions as you can read in Rayner Unwin’s delightful account of The Hobbit’s publishing history (pages 8-9)). There is a small taste of Hague for you to consider in a fiery Smaug on page 8. We do know how Pat O’Shea reacted to Stephen Lavis’ work on the OUP hardback edition of The Hounds of the Morrigan: she was thrilled and more than happy that he was commissioned for the paperback.
Recurring Themes. International Awards
The Hounds of the Morrigan is evidence of the enduring appeal of this genre for writers too, and is particularly welcome for being accessible and recommendable to junior-age fans of early Garner. Most recent titles have been for older readers and many are in that uneasy area between `children’s’ and `adult’ publishing. Perhaps the outbreak of clearly signalled teenage series from paperback publishers will help. Fire and Hemlock, Diana Wynne Jones’ complex and strangely compelling love story, is one of the first titles in Methuen’s new Teens series. Out this month Janice Elliott’s The King Awakes creates a future (post nuclear) world of Outmen, Magickers and War lords into which comes King Arthur, roused (accidentally?) by the blowing of a horn. But this Arthur is more human than epic and the Arthurian echoes resonate intriguingly in the story of Bron and her son, Red, and their search for a place to be. The King Awakes (0 7445 0804 5, £6.95) is from Walker Books, moving up the age-range after establishing a solid reputation for picture books and books for the youngest.
The nuclear theme is an increasingly discernible thread in current publishing. After James Watson’s Where Nobody Sees (Gollancz) comes Joan Lingard’s latest, The Guilty Party (Hamish Hamilton 0 241 12081 0, £6.95) in which a group of young people lead a protest against a nuclear power station. She drew on the experience of her youngest daughter for this book and says, `I like my young characters to have vitality and initiative and not to be apathetic. To me, apathy is a crime.’ Her passion-and concern with the humanity behind the politics makes her popular with young readers, and not only in Britain. Across the Barricades was awarded the German Buxtehuder Bulle Prize for 1987 by a jury of eleven young readers (aged between 14 and 17) and eleven adults.
Another winner of an international award chosen by children is Ralph Steadman’s That’s My Dad, which won the Critici in Erbi prize at the Bologna Book Fair this year. It appears in paperback this autumn from Beaver Books, along with a big Beaver promotion to draw attention to a list that now incorporates titles originally published under the Sparrow and Hamlyn imprints.
The Hero is back
Beaver and Hippo are hoping that the new animated feature film, An American Tail will be so successful as family entertainment that there will be a rush for the books of the film. Don BIuth’s company (remember The Rats of NIMH?) did the animation and it comes with the magic label-`A Steven Spielberg Presentation’. I haven’t seen the film, but the story of the flight of the Mousekewitz family (Russian Jewish mice!) from the vicious Catsacks, their becoming part of the great 1886 Immouseagration and their subsequent adventures in New York seems more likely to appeal to Americans who like to be reminded that they live in the Land of the Free. Beaver have the whole story for £3.50; Hippo offers a shorter text in four episodes at £1.75 each.
Not a great deal of Sound and Vision news this issue – but watch out for a re-run of Tony Robinson’s marvellous Odysseus-the greatest hero of them all, a tremendous feat of storytelling which won the Royal Television Society’s award for the best children’s programme of 1986. BBC/Knight now have the book of the second’ half from Tony Robinson and co-author Richard Curtis. Odysseus: The Journey Through Hell will be out in mid-October.
We’ll be back in November. meanwhile, enjoy Children’s Book Week.