How does the Spring 1998 output of picture books in the UK reflect the international market place? Elaine Moss investigates.
As I settle down to write this piece for Books for Keeps, children’s book publishers all over the world are hectically preparing the artwork for what will be 1999’s picture books so that they can show it at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair which takes place each April. They will not be selling the books as finished books, but the rights in the artwork and the story, so that other countries can use the pictures along with their own translation of the text. Picture books are now big business – for the more countries that sign up to the artwork for a book, the longer the (very expensive full colour) print run can be and, in theory anyway, the cheaper the book.
In the days of Beatrix Potter, Frederick Warne, her publisher, did not have to think about whether the Japanese would understand the social standing of Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise and Sir Isaac Newton in The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher. Books for children, the few that were published, were for the home market. Nearly a century after their publication, however, the sale of Beatrix Potter’s Tales is huge in Japan – but that is because its high quality has earned it classic status. Today some publishers do seem tempted to flatten out the content of picture books offered to them so that their appeal is universal: it is interesting to note, however, that the work of our most popular artists – Raymond Briggs, Anthony Browne, Quentin Blake, Pat Hutchins, Shirley Hughes, Jill Murphy – sells well internationally without being consciously designed to please a global market.
So how does the Spring 1998 output of picture books in the UK reflect the international market place? Debi Gliori’s Are You There, Baby Bear? is a delightful lift-the-flap book for the very young but in order to obviate the need for too much translation, the newspaper that covers the eyes of Mother Bear when she hides is written in a text that resembles something that comes up on my screen when I am touch-typing with my fingers on the wrong row of keys. Nevertheless the book works as an exciting game to play with a toddler: ‘Are you there Baby Bear, up in that tree?’ Lift the flap on the tree to find two birds – ‘There’s nobody here but baby and me.’ Not the greatest of texts but clear, clever art work.
John Prater’s two new picture books for toddlers – Oh Where, Oh Where? and Walking Round the Garden – are based on games of hide-and-seek and tickling played with babies. The pictures are large and full of fun, with the expressions in the eyes of the baby bear and his mother conveying mischief and concern respectively. Despite the well-known English texts (albeit adapted a little), these two books will surely have attracted continental buyers because of the quality of the artwork. In similar small square format (hence the reasonable price for a hardback picture book), Mary Murphy’s Please be Quiet! introduces us to a mother and toddler penguin engaged in a battle about noise because new baby penguin must be allowed to sleep. The book thumps and clanks and zooms noisily through bright penguin-spattered pages until finally young penguin discovers he can skip (hush, hush, hush) in his socks. The poster-like artwork (reminiscent of Lucy Cousins) will go down well on the international stage whereas Rosemary Wells’s Bunny Money is a classic example of how ‘translation’, even from America, where it originates, to England can fall into a deep pit: the bunnies go shopping with what are clearly dollar bills, here called ‘pound notes’. When did you last see a pound note? Better surely to have left the currency in dollars and to have adults explain to children how money is different in other countries.
Nobody ever tried to ‘translate’ the Americanisms of Dr Seuss for the UK market, thank heaven, yet his success over here was, and is, phenomenal. His last book, My Many Coloured Days, was a mood book: ‘Then all of a sudden I’m a circus seal! On my Orange days that’s how I feel.’ Each mood colour is used as background to soft chalky illustrations by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. Of the three British picture books in the learning-to-read-is-fun stakes, the top prize must go to Allan Ahlberg and André Amstutz’s Monkey Do!, a thoroughly inviting story of a monkey’s hilarious adventures on a day out of the zoo. It is told by Ahlberg in addictive jaunty rhyme which positively invites the read-to child to join in the monkey chorus (prompted by what s/he can see in Amstutz’s bold, clear funny pictures). ‘Mrs Murphy in the morning, Teaching tables, two times two, Puts the sums up on the blackboard, Monkey see, monkey do!’ Ahlberg’s rhyming texts must cause problems for foreign publishers, but the reputation he, with Janet and others as his illustrators, has built up for ingenuity and excellence means that worldwide these are overcome. For the home market, of course, it is a sure winner. Kaye Umansky and Margaret Chamberlain’s You Can Swim Jim has a carefree tongue-twister text ‘Don’t look grim, Jim/ You can swim, Jim’, attractively splashy pictures – and a happy ending for the reluctant swimmer. Phyllis Root’s One Duck Stuck is a cumulative story about how other animals and insects help ‘a duck stuck in the muck’; Jane Chapman’s bright, inventive pictures and the publisher’s innovative page design sugar the pill of this playful exercise in phonics practice (strictly for the English speaking world, one would imagine).
If Edward Lear has been translated into foreign languages, as he surely must have been, and if illustrations other than his own inimitable line drawings are acceptable, then Bisky Bats and Pussy Cats, a selection of his animal nonsense verse brilliantly illustrated in soberly surreal hard-edged pictures by Matilda Harrison, will be an international winner. Almost as surreal and nonsensical is What! in which Kate Lum, ably supported by the continental style illustrations of Adrian Johnson, explores the overnight visit of a boy to his grandmother who (inexplicably) doesn’t have a bed for him to sleep in. ‘What!’ She’ll have to make one then, – AND a mattress AND a blanket AND a pillow AND a teddy bear. But by now ‘It’s already morning!’ French born Philippe Dupasquier’s A Sunday with Grandpa is an altogether gentler affair about the way love manifests itself between the very young and the very old on a day in the countryside.
The passage of time in our lives and in Nature is the theme underlying Quentin Blake’s new picture book, The Green Ship, an enchantment in which an elderly widow, her ageing gardener and two trespassing children engage one another in fantasy voyages aboard a topiary boat – to the deep satisfaction of the elderly captain’s widow, the gardener Bosun and the ‘stowaways’. In the course of their suspended disbelief the children learn skills, visit the tropics and the polar regions and survive a terrific storm (two purple-dark double-spreads slashed with lightning and driving rain). ‘And then Mrs Tredegar walked out across the grass and with a long trail of ivy tied up the battered ship as if she had come into port at last.’ The book ends with the children revisiting, year after year, a garden in which the green ship is ever more indistinguishable from the overgrown shrubbery surrounding it. Quentin Blake is a supreme picture book artist – a position recognized by his French publisher, Gallimard Jeunesse, who have produced a fascinating monograph about his work, La Vie de la Page, so far without an English publisher. No man is a prophet in his own country, more’s the shame.
Colin Thompson has left this country and now lives in Australia. The Paradise Garden, his new picture book is nevertheless firmly set, for all its fantasy ingredients, in Kew Gardens. There, away from his strident mother and the oppressive city hubbub, Peter finds he can live in peace and daydream to his heart’s content. In spread after spread of frame within frame (this book shows the influence of Microsoft Windows!) the reader is invited to explore in fine details Peter’s new animal, flower and insect-filled world, surrounded, on the outer frame, by the noisy city life he has just temporarily left behind. For go back (like Max in The Wild Things) he must – but he takes with him, pace the Botanical Gardens regulations, a pocketful of seeds that will turn his urban garden into a second paradise. Intricately detailed and deep-hued, Thompson’s artwork peers outward towards the Millennium and seems assured of international success.
Folk tales, by their very nature are international, which makes the artwork for picture books based on folk tales a fairly safe bet for the global market. One of these this season is John Agard’s re-telling, with Korky Paul’s illustrations, of the Brer Rabbit fable The Great Tug-o-War. A racy text with vigorous cartoon style pictures conveys the message that friendship is the strongest rope there is. North-South Books re-issue a famous Swiss edition of The Bremen Town Musicians, the Grimms’ tale of the four ageing and threatened animals – a donkey, a cat, a dog and a rooster – who, to save their skins, set off to join the Bremen town band but instead set up house together having scared the wits out of the resident robbers. Hans Fischer is the artist who made this tale his own way back in 1944 – 32 large pages across which the ‘musicians’ march merrily and with assurance to domestic bliss: a treat. In The Blessing Seed Caitlin Matthews has taken the creation myths, including Genesis, and retold them in a story that replaces the aura of sin with one of love for the Earth and all its creatures including the many facets of ourselves. A lyrical book illustrated with bright African style art work by Alison Dexter. Vivian French’s The Thistle Princess reads like an old fairy tale in which the aristocratic plants in the royal garden, dictated to by the common thistle, create a cradle for the Thistle Princess who, so much longed for by the King and Queen, becomes over-protected and in a finally dramatic, almost tragic scene floats away for ever, leaving the King and Queen to nurture the kingdom’s children, once barred from the garden, as their own. Elizabeth Harbour’s pale elongated artwork, in the Sara Midda tradition, is soft as thistledown. Foreign buyers must have queued up for this whisper of a classic to be at last year’s Bologna. Which books will achieve the biggest international success this year? Who knows. But that the race influences what we see in the bookshops, there is no doubt.
Elaine Moss, teacher and primary school librarian now retired, was for 10 years the selector of Children’s Books of the Year.
Details of books discussed
Are You There, Baby Bear?, Debi Gliori, Orchard, 1 86039 410 8, £9.99
Oh Where, Oh Where?, John Prater, Bodley Head, 0 370 32296 7, £6.99
Walking Round the Garden, John Prater, Bodley Head, 0 370 32286 X, £6.99
Please be Quiet!, Mary Murphy, Methuen, 0 416 19481 8, £6.99
Bunny Money, Rosemary Wells, Doubleday, 0 385 40926 5, £9.99
My Many Coloured Days, Dr Seuss, ill. Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, Hutchinson, 0 09 176890 X, £9.99
Monkey Do!, Allan Ahlberg and André Amstutz, Walker, 0 7445 5573 6, £10.99
You Can Swim Jim, Kaye Umansky and Margaret Chamberlain, Bodley Head, 0 370 32452 8, £8.99
One Duck Stuck, Phyllis Root, ill. Jane Chapman, Walker, 0 7445 5600 7, £9.99
Bisky Bats and Pussy Cats, Edward Lear, ill. Matilda Harrison, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3556 6, £9.99
What!, Kate Lum, ill. Adrian Johnson, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3054 8, £9.99
A Sunday with Grandpa, Philippe Dupasquier, Andersen, 0 86264 791 6, £9.99
The Green Ship, Quentin Blake, Cape, 0 224 04672 1, £9.99
The Paradise Garden, Colin Thompson, Cape, 0 224 04632 2, £9.99
Brer Rabbit: The Great Tug-o-War, John Agard, ill. Korky Paul, Bodley Head, 0 370 32483 8, £9.99
The Bremen Town Musicians, The Brothers Grimm, ill. Hans Fischer, North-South Books, 1 55858 893 0, £9.99
The Blessing Seed, Caitlin Matthews, ill. Alison Dexter, Barefoot, 1 901223 70 1, £9.99
The Thistle Princess, Vivian French, ill. Elizabeth Harbour, Walker, 0 7445 4464 5, £10.99