CHILDREN'S LITERATURE IS revelling in self-congratulation at the moment. Some of it is justifiable: there is indeed a lot of talent around, and many books published in the last five years will stand the test of time. But many of the paeans to a new golden age simply ignore the quality of the best children's books from the past. So I have decided to include two oldies - a picture book and a novel.
'I spend a lot of my time just thinking,' the illustrator John Burningham has said of his creative method. 'Perhaps musing is a better word to describe this activity. I can muse for days on end.. .' Asked how he relaxes, his response was 'by going to sleep'.
Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers, Burningham's first picture book, was published forty years ago, an event now deservedly celebrated by a handsome, gold-covered edition. A plate of the original cover is included inside, together with examples of the early rough drawings; there is a foreword by Tom Maschler, and an afterword by Burningham himself.
Maschler describes visiting the illustrator's basement flat in Percy Street and how it was just one picture that persuaded him to publish the book. The picture was of the mother goose knitting 'a lund of grey woollen jersey' for the excited onlooker, Borka. Then in hs late twenties, Maschler had never published a children's book before. Jonathan Cape did not, at that time, publish picture books. In the end, however, Maschler's enthusiasm held sway, and Borka went on to win the Kate Greenaway Medal, never previously awarded to a first book.
Burningham's latest book is The Magic Bed. George's father buys a bed in a down-market antique shop. Although George is unable to decipher the magic word engraved in the headboard, he guesses it by chance, and has secret nightly adventures. We see the bed floating on a page of darkly spattered ink, reminiscent of textures used in Borka and subsequent books. One night he gives a lift to some tired geese, another night he races a group of witches on broomsticks.
Burningham, an inveterate antiques browser and collector himself (he works at a big old boardroom table that came from a school for debutantes), is aware that not everyone shares his enthusiasm for second-hand goods. While George is away on holiday with his parents, his granny sends that 'nasty old bed' to the dump and buys a brand- new one. George storms off, sees his old bed in a skip, and climbs aboard. 'Now if you lie very still in your bed and find your magic word, perhaps you could travel far away like George,' reads the final page. Burningham's musing has certainly helped him acquire an appreciative, worldwide audience.
The novelist William Mayne is seventy-five this year. His first book, Follow the Footprints, was published fifty years ago, and A Swarm in May (1955), which drew on his experiences as a pupil at Canterbury Cathedral Choir School, is considered one of the twentieth century's outstanding children's novels. Because hs books appeal to only a small, although highly appreciative, group of young readers, he has had to put up with absurd complaints that his style is too difficult, too concise, too (wouldyoubelieve)wellcrafted.Hisnewbook, The Animal Garden , exhibits all these characteristics, and is the finer for it.
It is difficult, not in the sense of being difficult to read or having a complex structure, but because there are pudng aspects to the plot. The reader is forced to ask questions. What are the characters doing in this (unnamed) tropical country? Why are some of the creatures called pug? Are they indeed creatures, or human? The style is stark and simple, but filled with sentences that invite contemplation: 'Once you can think about tomorrow you can think about anything.'
Richard Kidd is certainly not ditficult. He writes highly accessible adventure stories ofa kind that has become some- what unfashionable: a child character fads a robbery and all ends happily The Last Leg is hls fourth title in this genre, and it is just as delightfully told as the first three (and just as delighfly illustrated by Peter Bailey). However, his books are aimed at too young an audience and are too unpretentiously escapist for Kidd to have been honoured with any of the myriad children's book awards.
S F Said's Varjak Paw is an extremely promising first novel. It tells the story of a Mesopotamian Blue cat who, having spent all his days indoors, is forced to venture out into the world at large in a bid to engage canine support for hs embattled cat family. The age group at which it is aimed (in the words of its publishers, those who 'have learned to read reasonably well and are looking for something else that they can dive into') will probably be less worried than I was by Said's reliance upon a rather laboured misapprehension for his plot. Is it really believable that any cat could mistake a car for a dog? I marked page 66 as the point in the book when Said really gets into his stride. From that moment on, the story is rich in excitement and tension