Margaret Clark on some recent collections
I’ve always loved listening to stories, but as a reader I was desperately disappointed by my first encounter with a bumper collection. All I can remember is the book’s spine: it was invitingly fat, so I was very excited by the prospect of hours in that otherworld of delight to which reading took me. When, after a few minutes, I finished Chapter 1 and turned to what I thought was Chapter 2, I was horrified to discover everything changed – different place, different people. I read no further. When I did try the book again, I found it was like going to a party and having to spend a few moments with each of many guests, when I really wanted to get to know one or two well, and then revel in their company for a long time.
I’ve been wary of story collections ever since, so I know I’m prejudiced in favour of those that have either a strong linking theme or a single narrator. I find the ‘bran-tub’ type of anthology hard to tackle, although I realise how useful to an adult this may be as the source of a story for a special occasion or a listener of certain taste. This will account for my very personal choice of books to recommend here.
Rose Impey’s voice as the storyteller of The Orchard Book of Fairy Tales (Orchard, 185213 382 1, £12.99) is distinctive and beguiling, and I could almost hear the responses of Katie White’s class in Birstall Highcliffe School, whose help is acknowledged in the dedication. They obviously had an influence on the easy, almost conversational style of the text, and while the original elements of the stories are preserved the telling is in the language and phraseology of today. The endings, in particular, are well done, bringing the reader back to earth without a bump, ready to take off again on the next flight of imagination. When the Sleeping Beauty awakens,
After a hundred years asleep everyone was highly excited at the prospect of a royal wedding. It was, after all, exactly what they had been waiting for.
Ian Beck’s illustrations discreetly support the text, without intruding or interrupting.
By contrast, Antonia Barber’s retelling of 15 Tales from Grimm (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0737 2, £12.99) is more formal, more literary in tone, taking the reader to the traditionally wondrous, far land of fairy tales where Rapunzel’s mother is `with child’ rather than pregnant (as Impey has her). This is a text for reading slowly to oneself, rather than aloud. The story of the Sleeping Beauty (Briar Rose) ends on a quiet note:
Now the princess’s birthday was celebrated with even greater joy (though Briar Rose was a little uncertain whether she was fifteen or a hundred and fifteen) In due time, she was married to her prince and they lived together in contentment to the end of their days.
Margaret Chamberlain’s artwork makes this a very pretty book, borders of wild roses, primroses or delicate patterns framing the text of each story.
The Animal Stories (Orchard, 185213 381 3, £8.99) collected by Julia Eccleshare are by different authors, but these anthopomorphic tales share the same brand of humour – that cheerful but straight-faced commonsensical view of human frailty and potential hazard which is the natural approach of happy and confident children. Characterised by Richard Hughes’ story of the elephant and the kangaroo enjoying a boiled kettle for breakfast (a child has told them to boil the kettle for a picnic), the contents of this anthology live up to their packaging in sparkling colour by Wendy Smith.
The Topsy-Turvy Storybook (Gollancz, 0 575 05429 8, £8.99) is good for a giggle, as the blurb suggests. Dick King-Smith effortlessly takes the mickey out of the best known fairy tales, legends and nursery rhymes. Like any child with long hair, I avoided the story of Rapunzel because I couldn’t bear to think of anyone hanging on to the end of my plaits, but here she is stupid enough to cut off her hair while the prince is only half-way up!
The contents list of Michael Rosen’s South and North, East and West (Walker, 0 7445 2193 9, £12.99) suggested it was a book of animal fables – how the wily outwit the strong, why cows shiver, and so on, but it proved to be as stirring to the mind as its title. Michael Rosen knows just how few words are needed to tell a good story and to point its (unstated) moral. The tales come from countries where Oxfam is at work. I found myself reading at a different pace: I read, I smiled, I thought, I turned to the notes and I thought again, as my eyes rested on the brilliant, mysterious pictures by a number of artists. The gaps between stories were filled by my wondering (as is suggested in the foreword) about `what other people think’. Snake has a horse; Toad shows him how it should be ridden: eyes forward, back straight, knees bent. Snake goes on swaying about in the saddle, horse ambling. `Thing is, I own a horse and you don’t.’ A note tells me the story is popular in Africa `as a parable of the post-colonial relationship’.
I think again: yes, there’s more than one way to read a book of stories. Perhaps – at last – I’ve found it.
Margaret Clark retired from The Bodley Head in 1988, where she had been Head of Children’s Books.