Last year BfK was offered the chance of interviewing Maurice Sendak who was on an all too brief visit to this country. Regrettably his publishers were only able to offer us one hour, and not a minute more, with this singular artist. It seemed the whole world wanted an hour too. Even though we had one of the UK’s most distinguished children’s book journalists ready to go, we felt that sixty minutes were simply inadequate to do Mr Sendak justice. It has not been uncommon for Authorgraph interviews to stretch over half a day, even longer sometimes. It’s the talk leading to relaxed conversation that provides some of the best nuggets which, to use a word Sendak himself employs, ‘quicken’ or bring to life the human being in the finished, published article. With great reluctance we turned down the hour and thereby gave up the opportunity of talking to a book creator whom many consider to be one of the greatest, living exponents of the modern picture-book. His Where the Wild Things Are alone is enough to guarantee him a place in the history of illustration.
But the next best thing has floated out of the blue in the form of Caldecott & Co. – Notes on Books and Pictures, a collection of essays and reviews written by Maurice Sendak over the last 35 five years and published in the UK by Reinhardt Books. At the risk of putting all critical faculties to one side for the moment, it has to be said that Caldecott & Co. is simply wonderful. And rare too. Wonderful because it’s a delightful, enlightening journey into the history and development of the picture-book. And rare because percolating through its pages is a wisdom, born of a great knowledge and an intriguing being, which makes connections that enrich and excite. Not least on the nature and state of childhood itself. What better way to launch our annual picture-book issue than the extract we have printed on pages 4-6? As for that lost interview, it doesn’t seem to matter so much now. More to the point, how does one go about persuading Mr Sendak to become a regular contributor to these pages so that we might look forward to Caldecott & Co., Vol 2?
The subject of our Authorgraph. Fiona French, has something of the same. ‘ambiguous, idiosyncratic’ (two more Sendak words used to describe what we should look for in good picture books) magic about her. Her striking Snow White in New York which won the Kate Greenaway award in 1986 was one of the most stylish re-workings of a popular fairytale seen in recent years -the poisoned apple in The Big Apple with Snow White presented as a flapper and the dwarfs as seven jazz-men. Turn to the centre-spread for the full story … and pages 27-30 for Chris Powling’s pick of the Spring picture-books. Also in this issue is the last but one of Pat Thomson’s superb ‘Lifeline 4′ series -on `Celebrations and Festivals’ this time – plus a round-up of current audio tapes (which, to remind you, we’re running every other issue) from Rachel Redford and an update on the winners of two of the most important awards of the year, the Guardian and Mother Goose.
Story Aid 1990
An intriguing news item came in from the Federation of Children’s Book Groups (FCBG just days before we went to press about a project they are calling Story Aid 1990 (see page 24). We’ve only seen an initial briefing paper and managed one telephone conversation with the FCBG so it’s very difficult at this stage to know how BIG they are thinking but the more I ponder (and I have to admit the idea’s got me- well and truly hooked) the BIGGER the possibilities appear. There’s massive, much of it latent, goodwill right across the children’s book world and l don’t just mean the British hit of it either. All of us, in whatever capacity, work in this field because we know how critically important the Book is to all the freedoms (political, social, and economic) we enjoy. How can the poor and oppressed of the world ever free themselves and stay free unless, as the Federation so rightly puts it, they are enabled to `feed the mind as well as feed the body’. Okay, so many agencies are already addressing themselves to the exigencies of worldwide cultural impoverishment but it would be the first time that the dispersed and decentralised community of children’s books did its, I suspect, not inconsiderable bit. I can’t think of a better agency than the FCBG to pull off something like this providing it gets the rest of us involved and creates the essential momentum. It would be a pity for such a super) idea to be inhibited through lack of ambition and imagination. For starters on the one-off ideas front, how about a small but heavily sponsored team from the children’s book world entering the London Marathon next year?
For want of a Letters Page
BfK has, surprisingly, never carried a proper, regular Letters to the Ed. page. Never let it be said though that when we do get a good one, even if it is of a critical nature, we would not hesitate to publish it. Especially when the correspondent is Bernard Ashley. Remember the article ‘Integrating the Core Curriculum’ in our last issue? It described how picture-books can be used to promote problem-solving. Here’s how Bernard took exception:
Hold it right there! Before you go any further into gutting more fiction for its Mathematical and Scientific core curriculum attainment targets, please reflect on the fact that some of us actively refuse to allow course, books to examine or assess children through our texts. considering fiction written for pleasure to be available principally for entertainment. There are bonuses to fiction, of course, and you know that I can speak at length about them: but such secondary use should always be firmly in the hands of the reader.
They’re big on “unit studies” in Strathclyde – where a reception class I saw was so busy mining the cross-curricular ore from The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch that it took the best part of half a term for the children to get to the end of the story. I wonder if they cared by then:
But well done or poorly, please don’t spread this approach to books through Books for Keeps of all places – the magazine born to support those who first treated good books properly by encouraging private ownership. Ownership has two meanings: the physical and the spiritual, and this second is as important as the first. What a child does as the result of reading or sharing a book should be his or her concern (within the law). School mathematics and science can be exciting enough, and there are many cross-curricular ways into both areas without doing our books to death. If you suggest in your pages such activities with any of mine. I’ll sue for misuse.
Fair enough. And yet I thought that Pat (Triggs) who penned the intro. to the piece spelt out as clearly as possible the enhancing potential such an integrative approach can have, especially on behalf of the ‘essential literary encounter’ with the story itself. As one of the few non-teachers on the BfK editorial team, it seems perfectly obvious to me. Both Pat and Bernard are right but what they each omit to say, because it’s so much second nature to them, is that in the end it matters less about the particular approach and much more about the quality of the teaching.
Now down to that other letter I must write:
Dear Mr Sendak,
If ever you’re in London again, I wonder…