I have to declare an interest in the work of Maurice Sendak that is only just on this side of idolatry. I shared the excitement when, in 1967, The Bodley Head published Where the Wild Things Are, a book that the general opinion of the day judged too terrifying for children (an the price of 90p exorbitant).
Nearly 30 years later both opinion and prices have changed, but his new book, We Are All in the Dumps (with) Jack and Guy (HarperCollins, 0 06 2050114 1, £9.99), shows that Sendak remains the supreme master of the picture book. He once said, ‘I live inside the picture book: it’s where I fight all my battles, and where, hopefully, I win my wars’, and here it’s the children who are battling with being dumped, tricked and trumped in a cardboard city under a starry sky. The impact of Sendak’s pictures, interpreting two nursery rhymes as a fable of the nineties, is almost stunningly physical: the energy of movement as the urchin children run or cry or cower, the dazzling colour, the line as sure as ever. And, as ever, each reader will find a different meaning. Perhaps some will want to protect today’s children, not from imaginary monsters, but from the image of homeless orphans, the reality of newspaper headlines (‘Leaner Times, Meaner Times’), the sight of a brown-skinned baby who could be a refugee in Somalia. Yet Sendak has always believed in the courage and maturity of children (‘what they yearn for most is a bit of truth somewhere and cared more about their response than the opinion of adults. I can only say that for me the book is a triumphant tale about the resilience of children faced with the terrible things adults have done to their world.
Chris Powling’s A Razzle-Dazzle Rainbow (ill. Alan Marks, Viking, 0 670 84648 1, £8.50) is also set among homeless families in a B & B hotel, but the background is unimportant (except to provide a happy ending, ‘proper homes on a brand-new estate The chief pleasure of this story is the heroine’s passion for books – she is as besotted with words as your very own editor and they both use them with delight. Her magic rainbow ropes takes Yen skipping through a book to be savoured for its telling: an irresistible razzamatazz of ‘ding-dong, curly-whirly’ playing with language.
The Last Giants, written and illustrated by Francois Place, translated by William Rodarmor (Pavilion, 1 85793 122 X, £9.99), originated in Belgium. Its extravagant layout, with a page of watercolour illustration to each short passage of text, is refreshingly un-British, but the story, in the style of expeditionary record, purports to be written by an Englishman. He is a veritable stereotype – with top hat, half-timbered mansion in Sussex. housekeeper named Amelia whose marmalade accompanies his exploration – an amateur anthropologist of the nineteenth century. Having discovered a group of long-lived Giants, he publishes his account of the expedition, is scorned by the British Establishment, offered a chair in ‘giantology’ by the Sorbonne, welcomed and funded by New York, and finds on his return to the Far East that his discovery has resulted in the Giants’ extinction. My books have killed them… Nine Giants who dreamed of the stars, and a little man blinded by his lust for glory: that was our entire history.’ The book’s appearance is beguiling: you can almost feel the care with which it has been designed and produced – but its underlying satire is as bitter as Gulliver’s Travels. How will children read it?
In The Night of Wishes (Deutsch, 0 590 54112 9, £9.99) the German author, Michael Ende, has been doubly blessed in his translators, Heike Schwarzbauer and Rick Takvorian. The jokes (‘I’m at the end of my feather,’ says the raven) and the riddling rhymes (‘0 potent bowl of omnipotent potion / Now hear my wish and grant me a notion’) read as naturally as if they had been coined in English. The typographical layout of this novel -the page- and type-size, the-wide margins, the coloured end-papers – make it immediately inviting and, once started, the reader is likely to be held by the fast-moving plot. A cat and a raven, spies for the High Council of Animals, have only the last seven hours of New Year’s Eve to stop the evil sorcerer Beelzebub Preposteror and his aunt Tyrannia Vampirella from destroying the world by killing the trees, polluting the rivers, and peddling sealskins. A Good Read – in which there is no ambiguity about what constitutes virtue and what motivates the Minister of Pitch Darkness.
A teacher told me, ‘You can’t go wrong with animal fables’ and the very old folk tales have the advantage of being well honed by constant telling. Likewise, there is rarely a delay in getting on with the story by pausing to describe the alligator or turkey or whatever, as might happen with an unfamiliar human character. The eleven tales retold by John Yeoman in The Singing Tortoise (Gollancz, 0 575 05440 9, £10.99) come from all over the world, were unknown to me (no expert) and are characterised by a strict morality. Make the most of your wits and you will win; break a promise and you will lose; greed and jealousy lead to disaster. The retelling is crisp; Quentin Blake’s illustrations are typically cheerful; the production (in an attractive, almost square format) is exemplary. How sad that – like most of the books on this page -it had to be manufactured outside Britain.
Margaret Clark retired from The Bodley Head in 1988, where she had been Head of Children’s Books.