25 October 2010

Book of the Week (78): "The Dangerous Journey" by Tove Jansson, in an English version by Sophie Hannah

Tove Jansson is loved the world over for her Moomin series, books like Finn Family Moomintroll, A Comet in Moominland and Who Will Comfort Toffle? (surely one of most delightful book titles of all time!), which have become some of the most popular of all children’s classics. The Dangerous Journey, reissued next week, was Jansson’s final Moomin book, an illustrated poem about a girl called Sophie who puts on magic glasses and finds herself in a strange world of volcanoes and upside-down birds and harmless snakes and a red and gold hot-air balloon. And Moomins, too – she meets familiar characters from the old books, and they all end their adventures with a party in Moominvalley. It’s an episodic narrative, with each spread bringing Sophie and her friends into a new danger – dark and threatening and a little weird – and then opening up to bright colour for the friendly, festive Moominending.

Made up of Tove Jansson’s last ever pictures of the Moomin world, this book will matter to anyone with affection for the characters, to anyone for whom this world is important (as it is for me, and probably you, too). For my money, though, what makes this so special is Sophie Hannah’s English version of the book, rendered with perfect pulse and rhyme. It’s especially not easy to make such things feel natural and unforced in translation and she pulls it off impeccably – this is a superb achievement.

Recommended by Daniel Hahn

18 October 2010

Book of the Week (77): "There's Going to Be a Baby" by John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury

This book has garnered a lot of press attention because it's the first ever collaboration between veteran picture book author / illustrators John Burningham and Helen Oxenbury - the first ever, despite the fact that they're married to each other.

I always feel slightly anxious when approaching a book that is the result of two fantastic writers or illustrators working together for the first time. I worry in case the book isn't as totally outstandingly brilliant as it ought to be - in case my expectations are not matched by the reality.

So does this apply in the case of
There's Going to be a Baby?

The story is an original take on the books-to-read-to-your-child-to-prepare-them-for-a-new-sibling genre. It takes the form of a conversation between a small boy - he looks about 2 and a half / three years - and his mother. The exchange is an ongoing one - it lasts from the first announcement "There's going to be a baby" to the birth.
As the book progresses, the seasons change and the mother's bump grows gradually bigger. I would have liked the mother's maternity wardrobe when I was pregnant - she is very chic.

The conversation centres mostly on whimsical speculation about what the baby might become when it grows up. Interspersed with this are wordless, double-page spreads which take the form of a strip cartoon, and depict the baby fulfilling these careers - while still a baby - with appropriately chaotic consequences.

The book is exquisitely illustrated by Oxenbury. The mother and son are drawn with fluid lines that capture effortlessly the easy intimacy of their relationship - whether strolling in the park or cuddled up in bed with a story. This intimacy is subtly challenged by the boy's worries about the new baby: "Mummy, can't you tell the baby to go away? We don't really need the baby, do we?"

The pages where the baby embarks on different career paths are funny - my 5-year-old very much enjoyed them. These scenes are differentiated by the use of halftones dots - a bit like a piece of Lichtenstein pop art, except with a pastel palette (thank you to Sophie Pelham for this clever-sounding bit). The baby's attempts to be a chef end up with pancakes on his head, whereas when he becomes a banker, he's depicted tossing piles of gold coins in the air and laughing like a miniature super-villain.

There is one problem I have with the book, which is that a small child, speculating about the arrival of a new sibling, doesn't think of the baby in terms of what it will do when it grows up. It's hard enough to imagine it existing as a baby, still less as an adult.

I wouldn't, therefore, recommend this as
the book to read to a child, if the express purpose of doing so is to help prepare them for a new baby. If it's read in the context of other books on the subject, then great - or indeed just for pleasure without a new baby on the horizon at all. It's fun, warm and reassuring - and beautiful, too.

And were my expectations of the Burningham / Oxenbury collaboration met? Not quite, but almost.

If you want a book which is in many ways the opposite of this one, try
Topsy and Tim: the New Baby by Jean and Gareth Adamson. It's an account of Topsy and Tim and their friend Tony who has a new baby brother. The book is not poetic, it isn't beautiful. But is extremely practical. Everyday realities such as breastfeeding and bathing are covered and Tony's emotional response is subtly dealt with. At first he feels moody and left out, but his mother gets him to help with bathing the baby, allowing him to feel part of things.

If you pair this title with
There's Going to Be a Baby when preparing a child for a new sibling, you should end up with the best of all worlds. Though there's still no guarantee that the new baby will be welcomed without jealousy or bad behaviour!

Recommended by Susan Reuben

11 October 2010

Book of the Week (76): "The Little Prince" (a graphic novel), by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Joann Sfar, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

A key tension in literature written for children and Young Adults is the nature of the relationship between adult author and child reader. The dangers of imposing adult authority on the child in fiction is so great that Jaqueline Rose in her book on Peter Pan famously argued that children’s literature itself is “impossible”. Fortunately, Joann Sfar disagrees. His moving and delicately nuanced rendering of this classic work puts the relationship between adult pilot and the mysterious prince at the heart of the story.

The haunting landscape of the desert, presented in glowing bars of colour, frame the crashed pilot's increasingly desperate plight, and provide a poignant context for the tender relationship with the Prince. Sfar has utilised material and visual metaphors from Exupery’s autobiographical Sand and Stars, his memoir of the crash that led to the creation of the Little Prince, to create a complex, layered work of great poetic beauty, not so much an adaptation but a transformation of The Little Prince. The suggestive power of Sfar's combination of vulnerability and strength, wisdom and naïveté, overturn the adult-child hierarchy in the book, as the Pilot and the reader come under the Prince's spell. Sfar’s fluid and adaptable style allow us to see the Prince’s precious flower in a visually complex way; as the Prince’s understanding of his relationship, and his experience of love change, so does the way Sfar represents the flower. The caricatured grotesque adults that the Prince meets are very wittily evoked. Peter Pan claims that “to die would be an awfully big adventure.” Sfar’s book allows us to go on that adventure with the Prince, and to celebrate the numinous wonder of great storytelling. You’ll fall in love with the Prince all over again in this lushly presented book.

Recommended by Ariel Kahn

05 October 2010

Book of the Week (75): "The Hunger Games 3: Mockingjay" by Suzanne Collins

I find trilogies tricky. More often than not I love the first volume, even more so the second, and find that the third doesn’t live up to the promise the previous two hold. I was therefore very much relieved to finish the third instalment of the Hunger Games series (entitled Mockingjay) as it is a real cracker.

Instead of going down the route of mushy love triangle, beautiful heroine, and a clear cut victory, as one expects these days from a bestselling series as this one, Collins carries on down the treacherous path she laid out in the first two volumes – Katniss Everdeen remains tough, often self-centred, at times unpleasant, and a brilliant protagonist. Her two leading men are no prince charmings either, and often as in real life, the opposition is not that different from the government in power.

The plot begins with a rebellious Katniss stranded in District 13 against her wishes, and mightily ticked off at the fact that Peeta was left behind and is now at the mercy of President Snow and the Capitol. Being underground makes her claustrophobic, and the constant pressure to become the Mockingjay - the televised face of the districts’ revolt - is getting on her nerves. As usual, she has to do things her way, and via twists and turns, she finds herself with a small, but not really trustworthy, crew, fighting in the streets for her life and for the ultimate cause – to take her revenge on President Snow.

This novel is a page-turner alright, but there is more to it. The violence escalates with tragic results – expect the death of many loved characters, and the scarring, emotional and physical, of many more. After all, this is what Collins is out to show – war is ugly (and reality TV is bad for you). Enjoy!

Recommended by Noga Applebaum

03 October 2010

Outside In event

Now that IBBY's 2010 congress is all done (I was in Santiago de Compostela for that a couple of weeks back), attention is being turning to the next congress, which is to be held in London in 2012. One of the key themes for that congress will be translation, and (for this reason and others) the translation of children's books has been exercising me a lot lately. So I'm delighted that Outside In - a brilliant organisation you should be checking out if you don't know them already - will be hosting an event at the Free Word Centre tomorrow at 5pm, as part of the FLOW festival and Children's Book Week. Should be a great event - do go along if you possibly can.

Outside In is a small and innovative organisation with a simple aim – promoting, exploring and celebrating world literature and particularly children’s books in translation. This event at the start of Children’s Book Week will showcase the work of Outside In, together with the 2009 flagship project ‘Reading Round the World’, in which a whole host of authors, illustrators and translators from all over the globe visited UK schools and libraries and conducted workshops with children and adults. Alexandra Strick and Edgardo Zaghini will introduce the ‘Reading Round the World’ concept outlining its aims and key achievements, as well as offering expert advice on workshop formats and book recommendations to get children reading more in translation.

It's free, but you do need to book - you can do that here.