Margaret Clark chooses some of the latest hardbacks
Just before I retired seven years ago, I negotiated a contract with an author of some reputation. The money was negligible by today’s standards but, significantly, the only obligation laid on the author (and agreed by her agent) was to write a novel ‘from the heart’. Remembering this, I realise what freedom we had when children’s books were still the Cinderella of the trade, ignored, looked down on, yet unfettered by the high overheads and superstructures of separate divisions or companies. We complained at sharing (and minimally, at that) the production and marketing of our books with the high-profile adults but this focused the mind wonderfully on the books, which had to speak for themselves. Today editors seem to work under the constant, relentless pressure for more and more ‘product’ simply to make its financial target quickly. But truly creative writing, like satisfying reading, cannot be done in a hurry. Similarly, in the more comfortable economic climate of a decade ago, it was accepted that a new book would take time to find its readers, because it must be assessed by its adult intermediaries and only later achieve a sales pattern that might guarantee its staying in print for several generations.
In selecting a few books to recommend from the pile your editor sent me, I realise the criterion I’ve used may now be considered an elitist luxury. I have read and listened for the distinctive voice that speaks to me with conviction from the heart – whether on a light or serious note.
Paradoxically, my favourite is a wordless book with a voiceless hero. Quentin Blake’s Clown (Cape, 0 224 04510 5, £8.99) is an astonishing tour de force, inspired by the mime of that classic film, Les Enfants du Paradis. The story of Clown’s quest to rescue his companions abandoned in a dustbin is ‘told’ with an intensity that engrosses the reader completely. What intrigues and enchants about Quentin Blake’s art is how the tiny, two-dimensional rag-doll leaps miraculously off the page. He comes alive, juggling and pirouetting, cajoling, begging and working to get what he wants – a bed for his homeless friends. A book to lose yourself in, and (surely) ‘for all ages’.
John Joe and the Big Hen (Walker, 0 7445 2570 5, £8.99) is the simplest of stories by a master of the picture-book text, Martin Waddell. A tale of little boy lost and found, it is realistically illustrated by Paul Howard in the colours of a summer’s day: the perfect bedtime book for the very young.
Definitely not for the end of the day is Colin McNaughton’s Here Come the Aliens! (Walker, 0 7445 3758 4, £9.99), a picture book guaranteed to excite the most reluctant of readers or listeners. The insistent beat of the verse text accompanies ever more frenzied pictures of the monstrous aliens slobbering, dribbling, grunting and burping, who keep on coming until stopped in their galactic tracks by the faces of a class of four-year-olds. A book that may alienate adults because it will arouse much chanting, jumping and shrieking at the final joke, it also inspires a relish for words.
Told with the same vibrating energy is Peter Carey’s first children’s book, The Big Bazoohley (ill. Abira Ali, Faber, 0 571 17483 3, £9.99). Inevitably, it will be compared with Roald Dahl’s stories, because the adults in this fantastic adventure are seen through the eyes of the boy narrator as petty crooks who behave both stupidly and wickedly. Yet Sam Kellow loves his parents and knows it’s his responsibility to get them out of trouble when they check into a most expensive hotel with only a few dollars to their name. Peter Carey, who of course knows exactly how to keep his readers spellbound, explains that the book grew out of his own son Sam’s sleepwalking, but that it’s ‘scarier, happier and funnier than the real adventure’. It’s a social satire, too, and I think well within the understanding of eight to nine-year-old readers, so why muddle them with American spelling? Or doesn’t that matter any more?
The Crazy Shoe Shuffle (ill. Nick Sharratt, Methuen, 0 416 19126 6, £9.99) by Gillian Cross is based on a good and very funny idea. ‘Know what’s wrong with teachers like them?’ asks the dirtiest old woman Lee’s ever seen. ‘They’ve forgotten what it’s like. Oughter spend a day or two in your shoes, didn’t they?’ And that’s what happens. Clear thinking and concentrated reading are needed to appreciate the subtle jokes of teachers being treated like children, but the story is worth the effort and has a most satisfying end when sour Mr Merton, remembering what it was like to be 11, mends his ways and starts to smile. (Very quietly I must point out that misprints do show up badly when the type-size is large, as here…)
For much older readers, Bernard Ashley’s Johnnie’s Blitz (ill. Paul Hunt, Viking, 0 670 86378 5, £10.99) is a novel that needs some introduction or more clues to its nature than can be guessed from its appearance. The blurb does not, and cannot, hint at the depth or strength of the story, although readers familiar with Bernard Ashley’s work will not be surprised that he makes no concessions to the age of his readers in this tale of the London blitz. The dropping of the bomb that triggers the plot is described bleakly in authentic detail with no lightening of the horror and grief of its aftermath. I found this hard reading, in that I felt a detached pity, rather than warm sympathy for the characters. But then suddenly, as Johnnie, escapee from an ‘approved’ school, determines to carry Shirley, a toddler assumed to have died in the bomb blast, back to her parents, the narrative takes off and moves at great speed. The feeling of the teenage boy for the plight of the little girl gives the story such a strong emotional pull that the reader becomes desperately involved in wanting them to make it home before Shirley’s parents have given up hope.
When I think of the flood of children’s books pouring onto an already saturated market, I wonder how many of these will find their deserved readership, but I hope they do!
Margaret Clark retired in 1988 from The Bodley Head where she had been in charge of Children’s Books.