The best books for elves – I mean children

French stories based on artworks by Chagall, Picasso, Degas and Monet; Italian retellings of Gulliver, Captain Nemo and Antigone; and a Belgian story about love

Wonderful: from Maia and What Matters, published by Book Island

Wonderful: from Maia and What Matters, published by Book Island

 

It is the best job ever - and I should know I’ve worked in Santa’s workshop making toys and have often been chief taster in the North Pole candy factory. Because I like reading Santa Claus chose me for a special mission, selecting the finest books for Christmas. He told me to pick the ones I would most like to have, so I have and now he needs an extra sleigh.

The German publisher Prestel has been making beautiful books for elves, I mean children, of my age and younger, for a long time. Most recently Prestel has published a French series in English with stories based on the work of great artists such as Chagall and Picasso, there’s one about a Little Ballerina, inspired by Degas and his love of the ballet. There’s also one looking for the frog that must live in the various ponds Monet liked to paint. I also love the one that follows The Blue Hippo on its adventures through great images from Egyptian art. The little hippo which inspired this book is a statuette, (a really small statue) that lives in a big museum in Paris called The Louvre. The story begins in ancient times when hippos were blue and were the masters of the Nile, the big river that flows through Egypt. The little hippo was the youngest of them all and he was great pals with an old man, Antef, who told him that the sun dies each day to be reborn. “Soon I too will fall asleep just like him. Then a long journey will begin.” The old man went asleep in his tomb and the little hippo settled down beside him for a nap “and fell into a deep slumber. Time went by: days, months, centuries.” They are at peace and forgotten until the day people known as archaeologists, who dig down into the earth trying to figure out the past, arrive and only then does the little hippo realise how very small he has become and he sets off a journey that is full of colour and adventure and finally he meets the other hippos in the museum….I loved it, it’s such a pretty book.

George the sheep gets to play in Funny Machines that were designed by Leonardo Da Vinci while The Cat and the Bird find themselves in the pictures of Paul Klee. My favourite one? That’s not easy but I picked A Bird in Winter. There’s lots of snow in it and it is based on the world of the great Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel and his most famous painting, Winter Landscape which is often called The Hunters in the Snow and was painted in 1565, which is not very long ago in elf time but is ages ago for humans. Anyhow, it’s about a girl named Mayken who is only 8 but has to work really hard in her mother’s inn, which is a kind of restaurant. Mayken finds a little injured bird and she hides him in an old mill. His wing is damaged; it probably got caught in the mean old trapper’s nasty-looking trap. I think Santa knows I like this book and I’m also hoping that he will squeeze the Picasso one into my stocking, (it’s a stretchy stocking, I made it myself).The book takes the trio and their big dog from his famous painting, The Three Musicians, and gives them a mystery to solve….You see what happens is that there is a village and the people are terrified because the king who looks like a bully has told them about a nasty monster that is lurking somewhere nearby ready to eat their children, having already eaten its share of their sheep and cows and horses….The pictures are wonderful, full of colour and once the musicians see how unhappy the villagers are, they try to cheer them up and when that doesn’t work, they listen and set out to help. The music brings some happiness but then one night the big dog is kidnapped and a crime is committed and the king wants to blame the dog but a girl was watching and, well…it’s a really good story and at the back of the book, you can find out all about Picasso. I don’t want to be greedy but I hope that Santa remembers that I also love the book inspired by Chagall because it’s about a dreamer who works as a village postman and he meets a cloud and climbs on its back just like the boy did with the Snowman in Walking Through the Air…the post man has lots of adventures and falls in love. It’s a beautiful story, full of colour and happiness, as are the romantic paintings by Chagall whose story is told in the back of the book. Veronique Massenot has written the stories in both the Picasso and Chagall books and she’s really good… Yes, I want the Chagall one as well and of course, I would like the Little Hippo, he is very sweet, and I will keep these Prestel books forever…

Those clever people at Pushkin Press discovered a wonderful Save the Story series of 10 colourful books from Italy in which modern writers get to re-tell a famous story. Gulliver and Captain Nemo re-live their adventures. Well Gulliver is happy enough but Captain Nemo is the crazy genius from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and he spends his days roaming beneath the seas in his fantastic and deadly ship, the Nautilus. Dave Eggers is an American writer and he had retold the story in his own words. Some of the pictures are kind of dark but then it all happens under the ocean, so there isn’t much light….It’s quite an adventure only I don’t understand why the boy in it has a name that sounds more like a girl’s….

And, I almost forgot, it’s good to see that some grown ups have realised that children and elves enjoy real stories so included in this series of beautifully illustrated and often humorously told stories are Shakespeare’s King Lear for us younger people and also Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment about the troubled student who kills an evil old lady, a pawnbroker who lends money in a mean way, and the student feels very sorry and finally gets saved by love. When A.B Yehoshua, the Israeli writer had informed his editors that he wanted to retell a novel as complex as Crime and Punishment: “they were astonished, and perhaps a little fearful….but I believe it is fitting that they” (us children and elves) “should read a story of the slow, profound moral transformation of a young, arrogant man who was caught up in a hideous crime.” The King Lear book also makes a lot of sense. The person telling the story - he’s called a narrator - is clever and seems to understand everything about people and what makes humans do the things humans and some elves do in the world we live in, early in the story he is describing turmoil, a kind of upheaval. It turns out that the King is far more stupid than the man he calls his Fool. There’s a line that says: “Nature was going mad - surely this was a sign from the gods.” It is a good story, like the best stories, it has an important message, only without being boring.

My favourite Save the Story of all by miles and miles is the The Nose, by another Russian, a man named Gogol. In this book, an Italian writer, Andrea Camilleri, shares his enjoyment of this terrific yarn about what happens when a pompous man’s nose decides to leave his owner’s face and seek adventures of its own…Maja Celija’s pictures are funny and the Nose looks very self important. I also loved Ali Smith’s version of Antigone by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, mostly because Laura Paoletti’s illustrations are the most atmospheric, and make you feel that you are living in ancient Greece and there’s a splendid black horse, that looks far more kingly than the king - regal is the word I think…. A wise old crow tells the story and doesn’t miss much….you see the crow watches the humans very carefully because she is always ready to eat dead people because she usually has a nest of hungry babies to feed. Antigone is a brave girl who wants to bury her brother and she is not afraid of the cruel king.

Her courage made me determined to carry out my mission as well and having heard about Greet Pauwelijn, a genius publisher from Belgium who went to New Zealand and began Book Island, publishing the finest of European children’s books, I investigated and found wonders: such as Tina Mortier & Kaatje Vermeire’s lovely Maia and What Matters, a Belgian story about a little girl and her grandmother facing a test of love and on the same subject is The Big Question, written by Leen Van Den Berg and also illustrated by Kaatje Vermeire. Both of these books have been translated into English by David Colmer who is a very famous translator from Australia and he has turned lots of very good grown up Dutch and Flemish books into English so that more people can read them. He knows that children are very important readers. Then there’s Melanie Rutten’s lovely story The Rabbit and the Shadow which should win lots of prizes and was translated by Sarah Ardizzone. It’s about a rabbit who wants to grow up and there’s a number of other interesting characters including a shadow - but I won’t spoil it for you… and for the brave-hearted drawn to heroes is Dirk Nieland’s Sir Mouse to the Rescue, illustrated by Marjolein Pottie (that’s a funny name, Pottie) and translated by Laura Watkinson, in which the hero, a knight in armour, is a girl mouse and her best friend is a dragon.

Mr Miniscule and the Whale is a classic from Poland and is written by Julian Tuwim, a much loved Polish writer and is illustrated by Bohdan Butenko and is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. It’s the story of a determined little man who is really small yet wants to meet a whale and, well, you have to read it…

Mission accomplished; there are some gorgeous books ready for Christmas and Greet Pauwelijn’s Book Island is publishing some of the loveliest and most original. Greet believes in books and knows that we want good stories that are fun yet also teach us without being boring…and she knows that great stories need exciting pictures: “My mission” she said, during my flying visit to New Zealand, on one of the most excitable reindeer (I pretended it was a dragon), “is to publish sophisticated picture books.” I’m not sure what “sophisticated” means but Book Island stories are thoughtful, even philosophical, and really fun. I like being Santa’s book elf. Over and out for the moment from The North Pole.

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