"A faun carrying an umbrella; a hobbit who lives in a hole; a mysterious name - Lyra; an ill-treated schoolboy with a scar and a secret. Children's fantasies may be said in some sense to begin with resonant images - certainly they often do so in the authors' myths of origins. However, they also begin in an author's reading practices, in his or her own experiences, in the influences which, acknowledged or not, shape and articulate their own vision and help define what it is and, sometimes more importantly, what it is not."
That's the opening of the chapter 'The magical Middle Ages in children's fantasy literature' by David Clark, from Magical Tales: Myth, Legend and Enchantment in Children's Books, a book which I am finding quite fascinating and which is leading me off down all sorts of highways and byeways, remembering books and stories I read as a child, discovering others I haven't read yet and very much want to; it's a many-branched signpost, and it provides a clear illustration - if one were needed - of the cross-pollination of ideas, of how an 'old story' can by re-interpretation become something new, and of how the chain of influence and inspiration stretches from folklore, myth and legend, through the earliest written literature to that of the present day.
If you should be in Oxford up to the 27th. of October, and you have time to take in a small exhibition, then do visit Magical Books at the Bodleian Library.
The website to which I've linked there gives a comprehensive summary of themes and images of many of the exhibits, but among them are Shakespeare's First Folio, a dinner plate which inspired Alan Garner's The Owl Service, C.S. Lewis's map of Narnia, and an alethiometer commissioned by Philip Pullman and based on that which Lyra reads in His Dark Materials. Papers belonging to the 'Oxford School' of fantasy writers, i.e. Tolkien, Lewis, Garner, Susan Cooper, and Pullman are on display next to many very ancient books from the library's collection in which appear the myths and legends on which the modern authors have drawn for their own work.
My Edbookfest event on Saturday was all about cover design - how best to tell the potential reader what's inside the book. We learned that boys won't pick up a book with a girl on the front (until they get to a certain age and it's a certain type of girl), that humans require Vitamin 'S' - 'S' for 'Story', and that the design process, over several editions, is a constant process of refinement and audience-targeting.
If you're a lover of food in novels, Sunday's post gave a link to a special edition of The Food Programme on 'cooking and crime', or eating with the detectives. Much there to whet the appetite for certain books or just plain make you hungry.
On Monday I posted details of the Cornflower Book Group's next book. Our September read is Crusoe's Daughter by Jane Gardam (whose Edbookfest event - a delight - I attended last week), and I hope lots of people are getting their hands on a copy ready to join in with our discussion.
've posted only one review this week but it's of a cracker of a book, Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season. However, I have just finished another treat of a novel, and I'll write about it in due course, but for now, look out for the fun, sweet, warm-hearted, mad-in-a-good-way Mr Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore.
It was back to the Book Festival yesterday to hear about two very different books (and a controversial opinion on historical fiction!), and as I have more events in prospect, I'm off now to sharpen my pencils and get ready to report.
We often discuss book cover design on these pages, so it was with particular interest that I went to a talk on that very subject at EIBF today.
The paperback cover image for Charlie Fletcher's novel Far Rockaway was the subject of a design competition for illustration students at Edinburgh College of Art, and the panel at this afternoon's event comprised Charlie himself, his publisher Anne McNeil of Hodder, Jonathan Gibbs, head of illustration at ECA, and the winning designer Astrid Jaekel. Together they gave us a fascinating look at the creative process and what goes into achieving the perfect pairing of book and cover.
We were shown many examples of jackets for novels by writers such as Enid Blyton and David Almond, Cressida Cowell and Charlie himself, each collection highlighting the variations from hardback* to paperback, perhaps a film tie-in, a design for the US market, say, and later editions of old favourites. With every change, the interface between book and readership is being refined, the target audience more directly reached - that certainly is the intention.
In the case of Far Rockaway, a novel which intercuts a narrative set in real life contemporary New York with scenes of fantasy involving characters from books such The Last of the Mohicans and Stevenson's Kidnapped, the cover had to combine these disparate elements and appeal to boys and girls alike. Charlie read the first chapter (and I think the audience could happily have heard a great deal more for we were gripped from the off), and we could then appreciate the challenge inherent in the instruction he'd given the ECA students: "illustrate that!"
Astrid showed us the beautiful, ingenious papercut she'd made initially in response to the text and to the need to interpret it in simple and striking manner, a piece inspired by the drama of the book and the movement and elements of nature in the story, and then she explained that when her design was chosen, several more versions or roughs were made until the Hodder designers then shaped the final one into what you see above. This successful collaboration of the creative and the commercial worlds has resulted in a design which pleases both author and publisher, and which should attract a readership which will be enthralled by the book.
Asked how publishers decide on jacket designs in the typical, more conventional process, Anne McNeil said they use "a mixture of intuition, experience and consumer insight". She commented that Charlie's work transcends genre, he can't be pigeonholed, and finding an image to complement his stories is a creative challenge. The initial brief is all-important, and everyone must work to that brief to come up with a design which tells the reader what's inside the cover.
To end, Charlie talked about the creative process within the act of reading itself, as the reader's own imagination provides the images to accompany the story as it goes along. For this reason, photo-real covers "deprive the reader of being involved in their own reality of the book", and likewise Charlie would always advise reading a book before seeing a film version. "Humans need Vitamin S," he says, "S for Story."
*You can see the hardback jacket for Far Rockawayhere
Here's Lizzie Bennet as you've never seen here before, I imagine. This is a needle-felted figure from the Cozy Classics version of Pride and Prejudice, one of a series of board books which introduces children from 0+ to classic stories told in a mere 12 words, each one illustrated with these marvellous figures.
If you're sceptical, do read this review. "Would it be possible to abridge great works of literature to create an early reading experience that was interesting to both babies and adults?" asks Helen Brown; the answer, as you'll see, is 'yes'.
(Click here for a time lapse video of the making of Mr. Rochester!)
"[Mary] Norton's sense of theater includes not only drama and characterization, but props and setting. The incongruity of her tiny characters and their use of human-sized jetsam is never lost sight of. She makes us look at the most mundane object with fresh and speculative eye. It is her capacity for 'making do' and improvisation that captures the charm of childhood, when play is serious business. Clifton Fadiman, in an article in Holiday magazine, claims the spirit of play as explanation for the British preoccupation with the small, the snug, the understated. English folklore and literature abound with little people: fairies, pixies, goblins, elves, dwarfs, sprites, spriggins, Lilliputians, Hobbits, Borrowers. There must be something about an island nation that engenders a genius for the miniature: the Japanese can make a landscape in a dish; the British excel in literary microtomy. It is almost as though everyone on 'this little isle' has a private world into which he can withdraw and explore - himself perhaps? Surely his relationship to others."
"I suppose that an American's approach to English literature must always be oblique. We share a language but not a landscape. In order to understand the English classics as adults, we must build up a sort of visual vocabulary from the books we read as children. Children's literature is, in some ways, more important to us than it is to the English child. I contend that a child brought up on nursery rhymes and Jacobs' English Fairy Tales can better understand Shakespeare; that a child who has pored over Beatrix Potter can better respond to Wordsworth. Of course it is best if one can find for himself a bank where the wild thyme grows, or discover daffodils growing wild. Failing that, the American child must feed the 'inward eye' with the images in the books he reads when young, so that he can enter a larger realm when he is older. I am sure I enjoyed the Brontë novels more for having read The Secret Garden first. As I stood on those moors, looking out over that wind-swept landscape I realized that it was Mrs. Burnett who taught me what 'wuthering' meant long before I ever got round to reading Wuthering Heights. Epiphany comes at the moment of recognition."
A new novel by Sally Gardner is coming in early November: "Set in the Hundred Years War, Tinder
is a re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale The Tinderbox, and is at once cruel yet deeply enchanting with overtones of Markus Zusak, Margo Lannagan, Angela Carter and Lewis Carroll. A young soldier, a captive princess, witches, wolves and Death all come together in this exquisitely written novel with stunning illustrations by David Roberts."
Sally's fourth novel The Double Shadow
is reviewed here, and here is her guest post on the subject of dyslexia and creativity.
Next, a marvellous idea: a cologne for a character!
Louise Penny, author of the bestselling Inspector Gamache novels, has been working with a perfumer at Floris to create a cologne, Eau de Gamache, such as her well-loved character would wear. Click here and scroll down to find out more about it, but if it is really "earthy, warm, inviting, fresh ..." I'll be after some myself.
Also marking that birthday is the release of the free ebook Virago is 40: A Celebration containing specially written pieces inspired by the number 40.
Manx Lit Fest is shaping up well already with some big names guaranteed to draw the crowds. "Andrew Taylor*, one of the most renowned crime and historical novelists in the British Isles and author of The American Boy and the Lydmouth series; Matt Haig, whose new novel The Humans is drawing widespread acclaim from peers and reviewers, and Isle of Man-based author Alan Bradley, whose Flavia De Luce** crime novels – about an 11-year-old girl who solves crimes in 1950s England – have been optioned for television by Sam Mendes."
If you've read my drains saga you'll guess that books and reading haven't been high on the priority list for the last few days. Though what we've had to put up with has been minor compared to the disasters that can happen, it's amazing how a small thing such as lack of the basic domestic facilities we usually take for granted can absorb so much time and attention and throw everything out of kilter.
Anyway, providing a welcome distraction from anxieties about 'the black lagoon' at our back door has been Joan Bodger's How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children's Books. A page or two at bedtime, following this American family's late-1950s journey round Britain visiting literary locations, has been soothing reading, and while I'm not far in yet I am enjoying the period portrait of the country it offers and marvelling at the Bodgers' encyclopedic knowledge of children's literature.
I've just flicked ahead for a quick look at the chapter in which the Bodgers come to Edinburgh on the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson, and I see that mention is made of the Stevenson family's being urged to move for the good of RLS's health because of their home's "exposed position and poor drains" - they were living at the time in our street!
You may remember a post last year about 'the never-open bookshop'; well, the shop changed hands and now, to judge by the ever-changing window display, sells a rather interesting selection of old books (and some recently published ones) including many for children such as these lovely Ladybirds.
We had some of these when we were young, and I have one or two still, though we clearly missed a trick by failing to buy Helping at Home for our own brood.
I pass this window every day and always stop to look. They usually have a lot of natural history books and Scottish things along with the children's, but while prices are not often visible, the ones I've seen seem high - maybe they are collectors' editions.
Who could resist Ned the Lonely Donkey? I'd like to know more about Mick The Disobedient Puppy as well, and I'll bet The Farm brings back the countryside as I knew it when I was small. Ah well ...
"Light after light in the windows of the great house was extinguished, until at length it stood dark and silent. And though the house had witnessed many strange scenes, wolf-hunts and wine-drinking and weddings and wars, it is doubtful whether during its whole history any of its inmates had had such adventures as those of Sylvia and Bonnie Green."
That is the closing paragraph of Joan Aiken's children's classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, first published in 1962, a book that has so many 'essential' elements for an engaging, satisfying, fireside yarn: an evil governess, some plucky children in peril, the ever-present danger 'out there' in the form of the predatory wolves, parents conveniently away so that the children's story can unfold, plenty of home comforts (at times - they are made all the more appealing by the privations described in other parts of the story), and a lovely happy ending. Yes, there are some neat coincidences which mean the dice fall to suit the author's purpose, but that's allowed and the story's none the worse for it, and in its atmosphere and adventure it lights the imagination and thrills the spirit.
I knew it first as a child and have re-read it now so many years later with great pleasure, and for all the reasons above I find it very appealing. What about you? Did you feel the baddies were too bad and the goodies too good? Did Bonnie's stoic acceptance of her parents' apparent fate seem far-fetched? Did the swift move from snowy, wolf-stalked winter to the softer, southern landscape of spring take the edge off the book's mood? How about Simon the goose-boy (whose voice "had a comfortable, brown, furry sound to it") and his unlikely life in a cave - implausible, or delightfully romantic?
There are Dickensian touches and gothic ones - the 'dark, satanic mills' of the wonderfully-named Blastburn, for instance; there are moral overtones such as Bonnie's acquiring "patience and self-command"; there are sylvan scenes and rustic idylls ("smiling pasturelands all astir with sheep and lambs"), and there is lots of delicious food* - including a reference to champagne as a remedy of first resort for malnutrition! Fifty years after it first came out it the book is still going strong, and I'm not at all surprised.
*The 'books and cakes' post for The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is here.
I happened to be in a bookshop this afternoon, and during my brief browse I spotted a favourite novel from last year and took the opportunity of moving its neighbours slightly further along the shelf so that the book in question was face out. It's not the first time I've done a bit of 'guerrilla book-adjustment' like this making me - as Mr. C. coins it - a 'power re-arranger', but although it's only a tiny gesture of support for something I rate, I hope it results in the book catching the eye of a shopper who will buy it and enjoy it. For the avoidance of doubt, no other novel was 'disadvantaged' in the process, and I wouldn't dream of any major interference to a bookseller's display, just a wee tweak here and there!
December can be such a busy month - at least pre-Christmas - that reading may not be high on the priority list, so as we've done before, the CBG will have a month 'off'. To launch us into the New Year, I've chosen our January book and one for February so that we have plenty of time to get hold of copies and fit both reads (one short, one long!) into busy schedules.
For January, a classic of children's literature which appeals to adults, too. Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was first published in 1962 and is set in 1832, but in a period of English history which never happened. King James III is on the throne, and a newly opened Channel Tunnel allows ravaging wolves, driven by severe winters from Europe and Russia, to enter the British Isles ... At Willoughby Chase, the grand but remote country home of Sir Willoughby and Lady Green and their daughter Bonnie, Bonnie's orphaned cousin Sylvia comes to stay, and the girls are left in the care of the tyrannical, scheming Miss Slighcarp when Bonnie's parents have to go abroad.
"Dickensian in flavour ... rich in atmosphere and intrigue."
"A genuine small masterpiece."
"Thrilling tale...stuffed with atmosphere, adventure, memorable
characters and luxuriant Gothic prose. Any child who discovers it will
fall in love, not only with Aiken's writing, but with reading... The Wolves sequence
has inspired writers from Philip Pullman to Cathryn Constable... Aiken
was a genius, and her reissue deserves howls of delight," says Amanda Craig in The Times.
Our February book is "a novel which combines the simple pleasures of Agatha Christie with the intellectual subtlety of Umberto Eco." It is An Instance Of The Fingerpost by Iain Pears, "a deeply scholarly thriller, but with the learning worn lightly and all the elements of the plot clicking together smoothly."
Set in Oxford in the 1660s, at its centre is a young woman accused of the murder of Robert Grove, a fellow of New College. Four witnesses give their accounts of events leading up to Grove's death: "Marco da Cola, a Venetian Catholic intent on claiming credit for the
invention of blood transfusion; Jack Prescott, the son of a supposed
traitor to the Royalist cause, determined to vindicate his father; John
Wallis, chief cryptographer to both Cromwell and Charles II, a
mathematician, theologian and master spy; and Anthony Wood, the famous
Oxford antiquary." Only one version contains the extraordinary truth.
I very much hope that both books will appeal and that everyone who wishes to will find the time to read them. They should be easy to get hold of, whether from libraries or shops; they are available as e-books and audiobooks; there are US editions; but as ever, in case of any local difficulty, The Book Depository stocks them and will despatch them worldwide, free of postage (they are listed here and here). Let's set our discussion dates as from Saturday, 26th. January (for The Wolves ...) and from Saturday, 23rd. February (for An Instance ...), and if you've never read along with us before but would like to do so now, you would be very welcome.
I've been watching the film From Time to Time - perfect Sunday evening viewing (half the cast of Downton Abbey is in it), a touching story, a lovely house* at Christmas, ghosts and more ... It's based on Lucy Boston's book The Chimneys of Green Knowe which I haven't read, but apparently it takes quite a few liberties with the story. Still, with Maggie Smith and a lazy Labrador at the heart of things, it's very enjoyable in its own right.
It's a long time since I've read The Children of Green Knowe, the first of the series of which The Chimneys is the second, but as far as I recall it would make very good Christmas reading. Any fans amongst us?
I think this is an excellent idea and will be, I'm sure, a very helpful service, flagging up well-written books for able young readers, but noting the 'watch points' - the age-appropriateness of content of various types. Follow the link above to read all about it.
I've been watching the BBC documentary, The World of Philip Pullman. First broadcast in 2001 and written and narrated by novelist and bographer D.J.Taylor, it's an incisive appraisal of the work and beliefs of a man who, from a garden shed in Oxford, conjured another world. I'm referring, of course, to His Dark Materials, the trilogy for which he is best known, children's books which have found an enormous adult readership.
the first book in the series, was recommended to us by a publisher friend not long after it came out. I read it avidly, unable to put it down, and went straight on to volume 2 The Subtle Knife. Then we had to wait for the third book The Amber Spyglass, but when eventually it was published it was one of only a handful of novels I've bought in hardback on the day of release - I had been so captivated by the earlier ones that I was impatient for the conclusion. That it went on to be the first children's book longlisted for the Booker prize, and is a work which "bridged the divide between age and gender", says much.
The documentary refers to Philip Pullman's range, likening it to that of Beethoven in moving from "the delicate and light to the hugely tragic and enormous", and it praises the sophistication of his writing. Interestingly, Pullman describes himself as a realist, not a fantasist, interested in how real people behave but finding "the mechanism of fantasy useful".
It's been 12 years since I turned the final page of the trilogy and I'd love to read it again. Have you read Philip Pullman - any of his books - and if so, what did you think?
I like the idea of books which complement one another, which although different in scale and supposed readership yet have much in common in terms of their periods or settings, their themes and their respective quality.
In this spirit it occurs to me that I know the perfect companion piece for John Saturnall's Feast (see Thursday's post), one which though published for children is a book to be enjoyed by readers of any age, and that is Sally Gardner's I, Coriander.
I wrote about it five years ago, and here's what I said then:
"I have learnt that there is great power in words, no matter how long or short they be."
Proving the power of words is an utterly
magical book which Harriet loved and told me I must read, and now that
I've done so I'm very glad I took her recommendation. Sally Gardner's
novel for older children is the story of young Coriander Hobie who grows up in a loving and
prosperous family beside the Thames in seventeenth century London. Her
mother is a herbalist and maker of remedies whose gifts, it seems, go
beyond the purely scientific. But forces from outwith Coriander's
settled world destroy her happiness until she is able to discover her
own power and win it back. Then, torn between love and duty, she faces
an impossible choice.
The book is
set in the time of the Commonwealth and the Restoration and displays a
real feel for the period in its social historical detail and its
treatment of the wider issues which prevailed, but at heart it's a fairy
story about good and evil, beautifully and richly written and quite
delightful. Sally Gardner could have come a cropper with her combination
of fact and spell-binding fantasy, but there isn't a false step in the
book, to my mind. She depicts puritanical zeal, an extreme religious
sect, witch-hunts, a Frost Fair on the Thames, London life and much more
besides, but all so beautifully and grippingly that it has to be one of
my reading highlights of the year.