JONATHAN SWIFT'S GULLIVER, retold by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is an outstanding title in every sense. For a start, the book is superbly designed, its wide-page format allowing two columns of text and a good variety of page layouts. The writing is immediately engaging, direct and accessible.
There was a risk that the modernising and simplifying of Swift's eighteenth-century prose for a young readership would result in a stripping-away of all that is quirky and slightly deranged about Lemuel Gulliver, the ship's-surgeon narrator. But Jenkins seems to have been wise to this danger and, in a stroke of genius, lifts a section from the very end of the book and puts it at the start - namely, Gulliver's decision to allow his wife to sit down to dinner with him for the first time in five years. 'I kept a nosegay of scented herbs with me the whole time, to ward off any smells.' The 'scented herbs' of Jenkins's version are perhaps a trifle half-hearted, where the original is bracingly specific ('I always keep my nose well stopped with rue, lavender, or tobacco leaves'), but it is the editorial shifting of this key narrative component that I admire, establishing as it does the level of Gulliver's neurosis.
The majority of Chris Riddell's illustrations are in colour, but the minority in black-and-white show what an exemplary illustrator he would have been, in that earlier century for Swift's original novel. The illustration depicting Gulliver bending low on his return from the land of giants, for example, and some of the smaller motifs advertise Riddell's excellent draughtsmanship almost better than the coloured work.
As befits the work of a political cartoonist, the main strength of the illustrations lies in the characters' facial expressions, even in those drawings where, as with the image of Gulliver looking over hs shoulder while pissing out a fire in Laput, the face is only partially visible. The face of Tony Blair pops up in full frontal at one point, representing the government ministers of Laputa, and having one of his two large ears pulled, to remind him of forgotten promises.
Admirers of the Edge Chronicles, Chris Riddell's collaboration with novelist Paul Stewart, will particularly enjoy this new book, if only because it points up the Swifitian origins of many of the visual and narrative ideas in that fantasy sequence. Jonathan Swift's Gulliver is a book that will be both devoured and treasured.
Lavender's Blue: A Book of Nursery Rhymes by Kathleen Lines and illustrated by Harold Jones has been reissued in a special facsimile fiftieth-anniversary edition. It remains quite the best collection of nursery rhymes ever produced. A warning for the hesitant: this lovely reproduction edition may not be available for long.
It is quite a leap from 'Rock-a-bye baby' to the mourning of a father for a son, but that is the theme of Michael Rosen's Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake. This is, in so many ways, a brave publication, and it is a complete triumph of tone, mood and tempo. Neither text nor illustrations shrink from conveying the full despair of grieving, but there is std room for humour, and the book ends with a picture of a birthday cake, its candle glowing warmly, a Me-affirming image that does not dirmnish the sense of loss.
Anthony Browne's work is nearly always infused with both surreal uncertainty and emotional anxiety His new book Into the Forest is no exception. A boy wakes to a terrible sound in the night. The next day his father is missing, and his mother's facial expression is as bleak as the stark tablecloth. The boy posts 'Come home Dad' notes all over the house, but the implication is that Dad has gone. Sent off to 'take a cake to Grandma', the boy takes a short cut through the wood - a sequence cleverly illustrated in a combination of colour and black-and-white - and has various encounters with characters from fairy and folk tales. In an ending that sends the reader scurrying back to the beginning of the book to reread it for early signals, the boy discovers the truth behind his anxious fears.
In a year that has seen several new children's authors being backed by huge marketing campaigns, and not a few self-published authors brazenly attempting to crank up the value of their ‘limited editions, it is a joy to announce that a new book by a vintage author is unquestionably one of the best children's novels of the year, Philippa Pearce, now in her eighties, has published nothing longer than short stories for the past twenty years. The Little Gentleman , illustrated by Patrick Benson, describes the friendship between a 300-yearing old mole, witness to some key historical events, and a young girl. It shares with her earlier novel Tom's Midnight Garden an interest in the fluidity of time and space, but in its humour (the opening sequence about reading aloud is very funny indeed) it is probably more reminiscent of The Battle of Bubble and Squeak. Nevertheless, in the end it is a completely new addition, distinct in its own right, to this major author's body of work. The writing is poised and unforced, and although it is true to say that this book will probably only appeal to the more literate and thoughtful child, it is equally true that such a child will be truly thrilled by it.