If Children’s Book Week is over, can Christmas be far behind? At which point you may be feeling rather like the exhausted and disenchanted Father Christmas who appears on our cover. This is Santa as pictured by Errol Le Cain for Leslie Bricusse’s Christmas 1993 or Santa’s Last Ride, a cautionary rhyme in which red tape, wars and politics make the annual Yuletide journey increasingly difficult until finally the old man threatens ‘No More’. The moral is clear: ‘Christmas must be freed/from man’s stupidity and greed.’ This is Leslie Bricusse’s first book for children; he’s better known as a writer-composer-lyricist with a string of films, musicals and songs to his credit (‘What Kind of Fool Am I?’ and ‘Goldfinger’ for two). He is also a collector of Errol Le Cain originals and hoped that one day Errol might be able to illustrate some of his work. When Errol read Christmas 1993 he ‘thought it very amusing and witty. I liked the warning at the end about the way the world was going. I’d never tackled Father Christmas – it was an opportunity to do lots of things I’d never done before.’
Unusual commissions are a characteristic of this season’s Le Cain titles. His other book, The Enchanter’s Daughter (Cape, 0 224 02399 3, £5.95), has a story which was specially written by Antonia Barber for her adopted Vietnamese daughter, Gemma Tai-Phi-Yen (which means Flying Bird). When Gemma was asked who should illustrate her story she promptly produced a copy of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. How could Errol refuse’?
At BfK we are still very much immersed in poetry at the moment. (Our BfK Guide to Poetry will be out in the Spring – a bit delayed but well worth waiting for!) Jack Ousbey’s article (see page 6) arrived with a sad footnote suggesting that his views `are not likely to be shared by educational policy makers wherever they work’. Well, they may not be cheering but we are and I’m sure we are not alone. All that is most important about education is not susceptible to being neatly packaged and tested. We may have to fight to preserve a place for the unique, individual response to poetry and story against increasingly inflexible standardisation.
Tuning in … and out
Jack Ousbey’s pleasure in poetry spoken aloud chimes nicely with Chris Powling’s comments on ‘Talking Books’ (page 9) which help developing readers to get the tune off the page. Stories on tape is an expanding enterprise. For a while you’ll find some tapes in the record department and some in the bookshop; but this could well improve as producers and distributors get themselves better organised. We’d be pleased to hear of your experiences with tapes and of any you would like to recommend – or warn against.
As far as we know the Beatrix Potter tapes on offer are the real thing – though no doubt Ladybird will soon be on the market with their ‘simplified texts’. What can be said about a publisher who decides that Beatrix Potter’s stories are so difficult for today’s children and their parents that the texts must be rewritten and the pictures replaced with photographs of furry puppets? Sadly I fear that the Ladybird price and widespread availability will sell these unnecessary little books. Will it be long before the furry puppets get on TV? Then we can forget the real Beatrix Potter altogether.
Value for money
Back to real books. We’ve picked out some value for money hardbacks (page 4). But if your budget really won’t stretch that far here are some excellent paperbacks. We’ve had to wait 23 years but at last OUP have done a paperback edition of Brian Wildsmith’s classic Mother Goose (0 19 272180 1, £3.95). For the same money you can have an equally handsome edition of Ghosts and Bogies, stories by Dinah Starkey and illustrations (amazing design, decorative borders) by Jan Pienkowski (Piccolo, 0 330 29706 6, £3.95). This first appeared in hardback nine years ago from a small publisher, Good Reading. Heinemann had the good sense to reissue it last year- now it’s in paperback and the gorgeous dark blue cover with its red, green and gold decoration makes it look worth much more than the asking price. Going up the age-range When Did You Last Wash Your Feet? (Fontana Lions, 0 00 672676 3, £2.95), is a remarkable collaboration between Mike Rosen (words) and Tony Pinchuck (pictures) which will keep many teenagers laughing and thinking. Or there’s Kevin Crossley-Holland’s version of Beowulf with Charles Keeping’s decidedly unheroic illustrations (OUP, 0 19 272184 4) for only £2.50
Macmillan are hoping to capture a slice of the present-giving market with Graeme Base’s Animalia (0 333 45444 8, £7.50). It’s an alliterative alphabet (‘Lazy Lions Lounging in the Local Library’) extravagantly illustrated, and there’s a competition: make a list of all the things in each picture that begin with the same letter as the one being illustrated. For the person who matches, or best exceeds, Graeme Base’s own list there is a week’s safari holiday in Kenya to be won. So throw out the Trivial Pursuit, turn off the telly and get counting-well, that (so we are told) is what thousands of Australians did when the book was first published there.
From this year’s batch of ‘Christmas’ books, I’d pick Good King Wenceslas – the life story behind the carol – retold and beautifully illustrated in the style of a medieval manuscript by Pauline Baynes (Lutterworth Press, 0 7188 2632 9, £5.95). And if you are looking for a change from the standard carols you could well find something in Tomie de Paola’s Book of Christmas Carols (Methuen, 0 416 07362 X, £10.95). Words, music and beautiful illustrations combine in this lovely book.
For a gently oblique approach to the Christmas story itself, try Four Candles for Simon, Anthea Bell’s translation of a story by Gerda Marie Scheidl. with gorgeous illustrations by Marcus Pfister (North-South Books, 0 200 72913 6, £6.95). A boy shepherd in Galilee searches for his lost lamb but finds only those who need the light and warmth of the candles in his lantern more than he does. With one failing candle left he sees a stable; inside is his lamb and a baby. He gives the baby his last candle and suddenly it burns more strongly, spreading its light and filling the room.