Skilful tinkering with owls, pussycats, fables and foxes
Robert Dunbar rounds up the latest children’s books
“Powerful and haunting”: Tony Mitton’s Wayland. Illustration: John Lawrence
Tinkering with literary classics, whether children’s or adults’, can take many forms and yield mixed results. How to do it with style and in the process create something new, clever and funny may be seen in Julia Donaldson’s The Further Adventures of the Owl and the Pussy-cat (Puffin, £10.99). The couple’s “beautiful ring” has been stolen by a marauding crow, so off they go in search of it in their “beautiful blue balloon”. Adventures and encounters ensue. Donaldson, adhering to Edward Lear’s love of the nonsensical, wonderfully captures the spirit of the original, as does the humour of Charlotte Voake’s watercolour illustrations.
Although we know very little of the man usually referred to as Aesop, the stories we think of as his fables remain enduringly popular, having served as the basis for numerous retellings and attractively packaged collections. The artist Fulvio Testa and the anthologist Fiona Waters combine their talents in Aesop’s Forgotten Fables (Andersen Press, £14.99) to remind us of 40 of the lesser-known of these ancient tales: artwork and prose alike convey the notion that beneath these apparent everyday minor dramas there are valuable inferences to be drawn.
Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant, “illustrated and abridged by Alexis Deacon” (Hutchinson, £11.99), raises many questions about what can happen to a classic text when it is reinterpreted for a young readership. Striking as the illustrations are, particularly in their symbolic depiction of seasonal change, the story itself undergoes radical transformation in tone and detail, resulting in the loss of its poignant central themes of redemption and forgiveness. There is a world of difference between Wilde’s closing sentence and the one we are given here.
By contrast, Tony Mitton’s Wayland: The Tale of the Smith from the Far North (David Fickling Books, £14.99), makes few concessions to the child or adolescent reader. This ancient tale, Viking in origin and related here in ballad form, confronts us with the strongest of adult passions. Loyalties and infidelities, love and sexuality, pain and pleasure: all come together in a powerful and haunting story unafraid to expose us to the darker corners of human nature. The woodblock engravings by John Lawrence make a magnificent and atmospheric contribution to this beautifully produced book.
We have so many traditional stories in which wily fox pits his wits against those of even wilier goose that a new spin on the theme must really be impressive in its inventiveness if it is to gain our attention. “Impressive inventiveness” is, if anything, an understatement with regard to Mo Willems’s That Is Not a Good Idea! (Walker Books, £11.99) in which the age-old battle is presented in a style reminiscent of silent-cinema days. The book’s hilarious novelty comes in the form of a chorus of far-seeing chicks whose prescience will, of course, be rewarded eventually.
First published in 1968, Pat Hutchins’s Rosie’s Walk, another wily-fox story, has become one of the modern classics. Showing no signs of having been tinkered with, either verbally or visually, it now reappears in a lavishly produced anthology, A Classic Story for Every Day (Hutchinson, £19.99), together with six other of the best-known picture books by writers and illustrators such as Quentin Blake (Mister Magnolia), Raymond Briggs (The Bear), Anthony Browne (Me and You) and Shirley Hughes (Dogger). This is one to lay aside for the imminent stocking-up season.
Fans of Andrew Lane’s Young Sherlock Holmes novels will need little encouragement to find their way to Knife Edge, the sixth in the series (Macmillan, £12.99). Set on this occasion in 19th-century Galway, the novel again displays the authenticity of Lane’s imagining of the youthful Sherlock. Cloon Ard Castle, where most of the book’s skulduggery occurs, is, as Sherlock reflects, “just full of mysteries”. It is the perfect environment for rumours of a “Dark Beast” to flourish and for such picturesquely named characters as Sir Shadrach Quintillan and Ambrose Albano to pursue their dubious destinies. Great fun to read and, one imagines, to write.
Alan Early’s Arthur Quinn and Hell’s Keeper (Mercier, €8.99) concludes his Father of Lies trilogy. Praiseworthy as the two previous titles were, it is by far his most significant achievement. The knowledge of, and affinity with, Norse myth that characterise Early’s writing is again strongly evident, but the way these are woven into a narrative that moves effortlessly between past and present represents new levels of attainment. Not since Cormac MacRaois’s Giltspur trilogy of the late 1980s has this been done so convincingly in Irish children’s fiction.
Particularly impressive is the use made of the flooded Dublin cityscape through which Arthur and his young allies make their way, on jet skis, to Arthur’s final engagement with Loki, the “Father of Lies”. Croke Park, Kilmainham Gaol and Áras an Uachtaráin all figure prominently and very entertainingly. But also worth noting is Early’s portrayal of relationships, whether within the family or between friends. It all amounts to an expertly paced and totally engrossing novel.
The annual Children’s Book Festival, running countrywide throughout October, is well under way. Full details are at childrensbooksireland.ie, and an extremely useful Recommended Reads booklet, listing 230 titles, is available free from libraries and bookshops
Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books.