Wednesday 16 April 2014

Imagination Food - Creative Classics for Children

In the words of Maria Von Trapp; brown paper packages tied up with string are some of the best things in life. They are particularly fabulous if they drop through the letterbox containing utterly scrumptious books. One of the fulfilling things about blogging is that we get to review beautiful new books and recently we've received some stunning titles along one crucial theme... presenting classics to children in imaginative and accessible ways. I've allowed myself to indulge in a little forward planning in this area and I have a selection to recommend for a range of ages not just for tots. As readers know I believe that a good children's library takes time to build (as indeed do the bookshelves that house them!) and I love nothing more than discovering beautiful books for the future as well as the present.

Scooting around the internet I see there is rather a debate about whether children should read classics and whether classics should be abridged and shortened for them. As an adult I'm not a fan of abridged versions. I was annoyed to settle down to The Box of Delights over Christmas to discover that it wasn't all there and I had to wait impatiently for the wolves to run coherently after the post resumed. However, for young children I think there are some wonderful, clever, creative, beautifully illustrated editions around at the moment that do not masquerade as the original but provide an accessible and memorable introduction to a number of wonderful classics or classic tales. Scientific American declares that reading literary fiction (as opposed to non-fiction and popular fiction) improves empathy:
"This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves."
So here's a great eight for our budding little characters:

1. For Baby and Toddler:

A little while ago I wrote a whole post (here) about a clever and stylish little set of books produced by BabyLit. The idea behind the beautifully illustrated series is to introduce babies and toddlers to classic literature from the start. They use the themes and characters of each novel to explore ideas and topics such as numbers, opposites, colours etc... They are not abridged versions of the books, nor are they children's adaptations of the stories, but through carefully chosen palettes and designs they really do evoke the atmosphere of each novel differently and capture its unique essence. Culturebaby loves them. We keep a stack of them near her bed and she leafs through them alone chattering about details, reads them to her baby sister, and, the best test, has returned to certain titles over and over again. This week the latest in the series dropped through our letterbox, and it's a goodie. Culturebaby has loved The Jungle Book ever since we introduced her to a couple of clips from the Disney classic around a year ago. With bold, colourful illustrations evoking the exoticism of the jungle, this primer introduces a cohort of jungle animals alongside quotations from Kipling and their character names from the novel. Given the fascination most tots have with animals and penchant for emulating their noises. This is a really good first Babylit book to choose.

I'd also been drooling for a while over a stunning new Pride and Prejudice Playset, containing the Babylit book and a series of card push-out models to construct and investigate. Culturebaby loves small figures and we have had some great sessions recently with play landscapes I've created to act out stories. She couldn't wait to get her paws on the set when it arrived - popping out the cut-outs, slotting them together and lining them up into scenes. I'll use them a little later on to tell her the basic story of the novel - the main characters and houses are present; complete with carriages, musicians, shops and animals. It is a beautiful product and should see us well beyond pre-school.

3. For Toddlers and Pre-schoolers:

nullWe were so impressed with Babylit's board books that were were delighted to be sent the first in their new line of  First Steps books for slightly older children. Illustrated by Ron Stucki and again written by Jennifer Adams, this gorgeous book Edgar Gets Ready for Bed is a subtle nod to Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven". Poe's Victorian poem about a talking raven who makes a mysterious visit to a distraught lover, (tracing the man's slow fall into madness as he continually answers every question with "Nevermore"), is perhaps rather an odd choice of inspiration for a children's book, but nevertheless the product actually works. Babylit is no stranger to the bleaker landscape (Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre) or sinister topic (Sherlock Holmes and Dracula) and these books work because whilst they evoke moods through their illustrations they do not seek to re-tell these classic tales. Edgar is in fact, though gothic in style, rather a cute and disobedient little Raven, who "once upon a midnight dreary" refuses to comply, tidy up and prepare for bed. He's a typical toddler. He dawdles, he wriggles, he procrastinates and maddeningly all he will utter is "Nevermore" until his last stand and inevitable reassurance from his mother that she will love him "Evermore". Of course, the reader will come away with no real sense of the darker counterpart Edgar represents, but they do get a flavour of the gothic, a charming story with very simple text, and if nothing else when they inevitably come away repeating "Nevermore" as Culturebaby did, this endearing little bird may have planted a seed of recognition for the day they encounter this, one of the world's most famous poems, in the future.

3. For Sharing with all Children:

Edward Lear's Book of NonsenseMy mum read lots of poetry with me as a child, and on Mother's Day this year as I sat and nursed Culturetot, I was reminded of how much I loved this as she leafed through the bookshelves in our holiday villa and fishing out a compendium, recited one of our favourite poems, The Donkey by G.K. Chesterton. Sharing poetry and rhyme with children teaches them so many skills - reading aloud, acquiring rhythm, memorising text and learning about colourful language, metaphor, grammar, symbolism, and vocabulary. Children love rhyme, repetition and the intimacy of being read to. They also adore the lighthearted, the silly, the sad and the outlandish. Where better to start then than with the joyful nonsense of Edward Lear with his unsuitable spouses the Owl and the Pussycat, sieve-sailing Jumblies, Toeless Pobble and Dong with a Luminous Nose. His nonsense alphabets, limerics and quirky botanical imaginings are gathered together with his famous poems in this stunningly and imaginatively illustrated Usborne Illustrated Originals Edward Lear's Book of Nonsense. Christine Pym's illustrations are bright and whimsical and they accompany the text brilliantly. We were privileged to get an advance copy of this treasure of a volume. It will be available to buy in May 2014.
When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before. Cliff Fadiman 
4. For sharing with younger children or for those wanting illustrated chapter books to read alone:

I have recently discovered the wonderful writing of Michael Morpurgo MBE, author of Warhorse and a plethora of other successful novels for children. Published last September, his innovative re-telling of Carlo Collodi's classic tale of Pinocchio from the perspective of the unwise little puppet himself was a very welcome induction. With sumptuous illustrations from Emma Chichester Clark, this stunning full colour volume is a triumph and combined with a rip-roaring adventure with all the classic ingredients of magic, morals, suspense and excitement it is absolutely destined to be a modern classic. It would make a fabulous gift for any child.

5. For sharing with younger children or for those wanting an illustrated book to read alone:

Another stunning production from award winning illustrator Emma Chichester Clark, is her recently published re-telling of the classic Lewis Carroll tale Alice Through the Looking-Glass. This version serves as a lighter-hearted and excitingly illustrated introduction for younger readers to the classic tales that no children's library should ultimately lack. Here a modernised Alice encounters whimsical characters and familiar personalities (such as Humpty Dumpty) in a fantastical journey that will excite any young imagination. As Albert Einstein said "If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales". If you want them to be imaginative too I'd read them Carroll...

6. For sharing with primary school children or for older children wanting an illustrated book to read alone:

I am completely in love with Walker Books' new simply written version of Homer's Odyssey, adapted by Gillian Cross and illustrated in colourful Grecian style by Neil Packer. I believe that it is a crucial part of any child's education to encounter and understand both the important stories from the Bible and the major myths of Greece and Rome. So intertwined are they with our history that in many cases we no longer notice, but as a Western society so many of our references, art, laws, morals and literature are based on these foundations. Perhaps not all of our children will work alongside those who insist on likening difficult decisions to meeting Scylla and Charybdis, but then again they might. And if like me they do, you can arm them for the battle. And then of course, more importantly, these tales, and in particular the fascinating and frustrating voyage of Odysseus as he battles home to his wife against many odds and trials following the Trojan wars, is just a very very good story. It is the original adventure with deities toying with our fate, flavoured with magic and intrigue and peppered with ships, battles and monsters. It is a tale of morals, of good and bad decisions, trust and fidelity, patience and passion. At around 3000 years old, and referencing even older times, the Odyssey has truly stood the test of time, and still there are few tales more exciting. This volume is so fabulous that even adults shouldn't miss out. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. No children? Buy it anyway.

7. For Teenagers:

Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault is an original, stunning and clever graphic novel about a young girl Helene who is insecure and bullied. Retreating into her inner world she finds solace in the story of Charlotte Bronte's "plain" Jane Eyre who is equally rejected and alone. Journeying with Jane, Helene slowly discovers reality, hope and through friendship and the strength she draws from this classic tale, she is able to find redemption, self-worth and inject colour into her own story. Could she too be lovable? This is a brilliant example of how a classic story can be made as relevant today for a struggling teenager as ever. It is challenging and empowering. A really valuable addition to a young woman's bookshelves.

8. For Teenagers, and anyone who loves Austen:

Finally, I had to slip in a simply EDIBLE edition that arrived for review. Published last November to coincide with the 200th Anniversary of Austen's classic novel Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy Bennet's Diary by Marcia Williams is a treat for any Austen fan but is a particularly good introduction to the book for younger readers. Flavoured with the innocent angst of schoolday relationships, this version presents rather a younger version of Lizzy - a teenager with her adolescent worries, humorous and self-deprocating sketches and irreverent descriptions of characters such as Lady Catherine DeBurgh. This volume, produced in the form of a diary (a gift from Mr Bennet to his cleverest daughter) charts Lizzie's unfolding relationships and the collective fate and fortune of the Bennet family from the arrival of their exciting new neighbours to Netherfield Park. The design is particularly delicious; akin to Indy's Dad's dog-eared diary in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I wanted to leap into the television and grab the beautiful notebook for myself. The imaginative, gold leaved and hand written style induces similar feelings with its letters, invitations, flowers and ribbon keepsakes and adorable sketches. You feel uniquely privy to the Bennet's world as you unfold correspondence and share confidences. It is the sort of book that would have inspired my teenage self to start a diary of my own.
"It is a great thing to start life with a small number of really good books which are your very own. You may not appreciate them at first. You may pine for your novel of crude and unadulterated adventure. You may, and will, give it the preference when you can. But the dull days come, and the rainy days come, and always you are driven to fill up the chinks of your reading with the worthy books which wait so patiently for your notice. And then suddenly, on a day which marks an epoch in your life, you understand the difference. You see, like a flash, how the one stands for nothing, and the other for literature. From that day onwards you may return to your crudities, but at least you do so with some standard of comparison in your mind. You can never be the same as you were before. Then gradually the good thing becomes more dear to you; it builds itself up with your growing mind; it becomes a part of your better self, and so, at last, you can look, as I do now, at the old covers and love them for all that they have meant in the past."
Arthur Conan Doyle

Disclaimer: I received the books I discuss for review purposes from a number of publishers, to whom I am very grateful. Views are, however, as always, totally my own. The Babylit books were kindly sent by PGUK, Usborne provided Lear, Harper Collins Alice through the Looking Glass and Pinocchio, and, last but not least, Walker Books sent The Odyssey, Lizzy Bennet's Diary and Jane, The Fox and Me.


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