Page 6, 30th August 1985

30th August 1985
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Page 6, 30th August 1985 — Making friends from enemies
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Making friends from enemies

JAN MARK is one of the liveliest, most attractive writers of children's stories to appear in the last few years, managing to get the sound of young peoples' voices, and a sense of their relationships, feelings and humour, with the happiest results.

• At the Sign of the Dog and Rocket (Longman, £3.95) is a cheerful, funny, realistic talc about a crisis and how it's sorted out.

When Lilian leaves school she is planning to spend her first free week helping her father in his pub, while her mother takes the younger children on holiday.

Its going to be fun. But Dad falls over, slips a disc, and is flat on his back from the first day, leaving Lilian in sole charge until the helper they have advertised for turns up. And who does he turn out to be? The master she has disliked and sneered at for the last term at school.

Well, fiction is full of enemies who turn into friends and Tom becomes Lilian's prop, encourager and chum while everything that can possibly happen in a pub actually happens. Its a delightful book, full of verve and fun, literate and likeable.

Ivan Southall, winner of the Carnegie Medal and many other honours, is one of our very best children's writers and his Australian settings give an exotic background to the familiarseeming children of English descent. Hills End, Ash Road, Let the Balloon Go, Bread and Honey, many are firm favourites here.

The mixture of physical danger and excitement and a deep understanding of people which characterises all his work was never better shown than in his To the Wild Sky, the story of a group of six children whose plane crashed on the way to a birthday party.

This was published in 1967, and very well I remember it — thc terror of flying a plane on which the pilot has suddenly died. The end was left open, the young teenagers having landed on an empty island. What happened to them? Ivan Southall says he has had "pleas — very many indeed — to go on with the story".

A City Out of Sight (Angus and Robertson, £6.95) is his reply to these pleas, a continuation of the earlier story, telling what happened to the youngsters in their first days on the empty island of Molyneaux, where the last settlers died from disease 90 years ago. Cohn nearly drowns, Jan rescues him and starts up a fire, Carol kills a pig, George discovers water and the remains of the old settlers' place.

With the basic necessities of life (fire, water, shelter, food) secured we know that somehow they will survive; and then we learn that, eleven years later, a low-flying plane sees "a wellestablished, well-ordered small settlement . . . and six adults and three children".

This is Ivan Southall very much on form: strong, engrossing, dramatic, sympathetic to the various ages (one of the children is II, two years younger than the rest, so full of squeals and resentments but coming out well when generously treated). I couldn't put it down and that's a tribute from an adult to a children's book.

Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare are (I think deservedly) out of fashion and it seems a dangerous venture to have another go at the Shakespeare stories. But Leon Garfield is in a class of his own and will tackle anything.

Both a popular and a prizewinning writer for children, with about every major award to his credit, he is not afraid to re-tell myths or follow up Dickens, so why stop at Shakespeare?

In Shakespeare Stories (Gollancz, £8.95) he combines his extraordinary gifts with those of an illustrator as extraordinary, Michael Foreman; and between them they have produced something memorable, even startling.

One can take the book as an example of either's art and skill, because the illustrations are as original and masterly as the text. Brilliant and beautiful, varied and often eccentric, Foreman's work gives a new dimension to every book it illustrates.

Here we have pen-and-wash drawings (a lot) and watercolours (fewer) which manage to.encompass much of Shakespeare's world and feeling, being by turns grandiose, funny, horrifying, glorious, absurd, lyrical . . and every one of them contributes something, giving even Shakespeare new images and a new aspect, as a great stage performance may.

Then there are the stories, a dozen of them — the great tragedies, Lear, Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth, two of the history plays, Richard 11 and Henry IV, Part I, and Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew and The Tempest.

Garfield's own writing, his narrative, is always brisk and powerful; but here he uses a good deal of Shakespeare's own language for his dialogue.

This might have proved disastrous but in fact it is so skilfully handled that it is transfered to the context of prose much more easily than one might expect.

The spirit of the plays survives triumphantly; and some of the poetry. I would much rather start a young child on these stories, to bring him closer to Shakespeare, than 1 would give him (as I was given, aged seven or so) the Lambs' rather dull retellings.

For these are not mere retellings (though they stick more closely than the Lambs do to the original text), but works of art in their own right.

Jean Little's Mama's Going to Buy You a Mockingbird (Viking/Kestrel, £6.95) is a Canadian story for children of, I'd say, about 12. Jeremy, whose parents arc both schoolteachers, has to face the fact that his father has cancer, and then has to face his death and the very different life that follows it.

With his mother and his small sister Sarah, he has to leave the house they have known and look for a smaller apartment; but that is only the outward sign of their deep inner loss.

Before his death, his father hoped Jeremy would befriend a girl at school, who is clever but odd-looking and weiredly dressed, therefore an embarrassment to him; but gradually a friendshop develops between them, and although there is no neatly "happy ending" there is a solution to some of the family's problems, emotional and financial.

Jeremy and his family rent a flat in the girl's grandfather's house, call him Grandpa, as she does, discover connections between their two families from the past, and seem set for a good joint future.

A civilised, warm-hearted book with a pinch of the exotic (being in Canada), which should appeal to the quieter sort of child.




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