Pretty Things

Peter Campbell

The literature of pre-literacy reaches its audience by way of adults – parents, teachers, librarians and so on. The best reason for learning to read is to escape from what they prescribe or tolerate. Being neither buyers nor readers, the ultimate audience for picture books is doubly disadvantaged when it comes to influencing what is provided for them. Yet it has on the whole been well served by the teachers and librarians who, in Britain and the USA at least, are still major buyers of hard-cover picture books. The mass markets of cheap annuals and paperbacks are another matter – although the huge increase in the number of titles in soft covers, many of which have already had a long life as library books, heartens anyone who cares about the health of the picture-book form.

There is now, however, a breed of children’s book which has the gloss of manuals of craft, sex, natural history and cookery, which shares with them the best seller table in the bookshop, and which seems to be appealing directly to the adult buyer. They are being bought mainly because they are pretty things. Books as things are no threat to adult literature, but it seems possible that good picture books – because their virtues are those of narrative – could be driven from the shelves by something less sustaining in a more glamorous package.

Adult notions of what is funny or charming, good writers and artists whose work is mismatched, too much illustration, and illustration which conflicts with the better pictures the words have made in the mind, decoration and finish which supplant places and characters: these are symptoms. The disease is not so much falling standards as misapplied skills.

The phenomenal success of books like Masquerade has put children’s editors in the unusual position of being asked to seek out best-sellers. Lack of money in the traditional institutional markets, the high cost of printing, which has for years made the international co-production of full-colour picture books the rule, and the fact that the capital and editorial resources available put a limit on the number of new titles, could lead to one kind of book driving out another. Established authors will survive, but what new ones will get started? The thing most likely to be lost sight of is the importance of words. The picture books that last do so because they are good to read, give reader and listener pleasure, irritate neither.

The success of Kit Williams’s Masquerade certainly cannot be explained by its prose style. ‘The dewy vapours of her gown fell soft upon the land’ or ‘It was in thus doing that the unhappy Moon was the instrument of her own undoing’ are not the stuff of good story telling. But the story is the least part of the package. What is wrapped up is set of 14 paintings images in which one is very conscions of the highlights in eyes, the brightness of teeth, the green of grass and the blue of sky. They have something of the quality of highly finished inn signs – and, like inn signs, they are full of puns and verbal references. They illustrate not the story – of how the hare, Jack, lost the jewel he was taking from the Moon to the Sun – but riddles which describe who and what he met. And somewhere in the book there are, we are told, the clues needed to find the treasure the hare lost. Kit Williams has made the jewel and buried it; the book is your ticket of entry to the game of finding it. The back cover illustrates the prize. It is a wonderfully clever way of selling a book of conundrums, but the distinction between what is package and what product is confused to the point where one wonders if it is publishing or publicity one is dealing with.

Rosemary Harris’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast, far from being a mere vehicle for illustrations, carries illustrations it does not need. The story is the hardest kind to put pictures to. Beauty’s beauty and the sad pleading eyes of the beast are subjects for the mind’s eye, or the movies (or, now that young women so regularly go off into the bush to live with gorillas or chimpanzees, the documentary film-maker), but not for an illustrator. Grimm is easier to illustrate than a Perrault or Hans Andersen: grotesques and giants keep their awfulness, comics their humour, long after princesses have started to look like fashion plates. Errol Le Cain makes a pantomime of it, goes for the look of stage scenery. His roses are paper roses, his sunsets like back projections. His Beauty is to my eye not beautiful, his Beast terrible, or his palace enchanted. Yet it is not really the quality of the pictures which is at fault. Some words should be allowed to speak for themselves, and Rosemary Harris’s are very good indeed. One wants a collection of tales from her, not a single story that has been overdressed.

Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Mazel and Schli-mazel also lives well by words alone. There is no feeling that Singer was constrained by his memory of the version of the story he was told by his mother as a child; rather, that he then learnt how to tell stories. This one concerns the spirits of good and bad luck. It reaches a climax when the poor boy. Tam, having been raised to dignity and wealth by Mazel’s gift of good luck, manages to milk a lioness to cure the King; when bad luck has his turn, he spoils his good fortune by saying it is dog’s milk. His fortunes are ruined, for a while, anyway. Again the drawings – in this case brush-drawings by Margot Zemach, rather in the manner of Ben Shahn – are not strictly necessary, but they are good on gestures and are an addition rather than a subtraction: it is a handsome book and lovely to read.

On the face of it, La Corona has even more going for it. Nicola Bayley’s drawings have the clarity of form and colour, the minutely stippled surfaces and precise gradations of tone, of very good botanical illustrations. The texture of a rug, or the light from a candle, become lessons in transcription. Russell Hoban has evoked a world where objects have a wistful, disjointed existence in which they strive for animal vitality. There is something of Hans Andersen’s melancholy, but something, too, of the tougher world of Hoban’s own The Mouse and His Child. He deals in wryness, disappointment, verbal jokes and hope. At the end of the book his characters – La Corona (the lady on the cigar box), the tin frog, the incense burner, the mouse, the magnifying glass and so on – stand on the window ledge, about to escape into the real moonlit world outside. The drawing showing this is the best in the book, but it is the only one which really matches the feeling of the story. The rest, sweet and pretty as pink sugar biscuits, seem too soft for a world in which a tin crocodile composes strong poems. The first of these is ‘NOW IS THE ONLY TIME THERE IS.’ The crocodile gets it from the incense burner, who was burning to say something, and had, the crocodile thought, ‘a working-class outlook – which he was happier with than he would have been with the crocodile’s literary yearnings. The poem is published in the spinster mouse’s literary quarterly. At this point, one realises there are problems with the words too: there is too much here I could not explain to anyone who might want me to read it to them.

Cats’ Eyes is a book of, to my eye, rather repellently neat and stylised black and white illustrations. But it is much more interesting and amusing than many prettier productions. More a piece of feline sociology than a story, it describes the life of Tiger from birth to death, showing the world from cat level and through cats’ eyes. Kitten-eye perspectives of a looming world of knees and table legs are particularly effective – one remembers that children spend a long time down there too.

Comic and Curious Cats is for someone – and probably not a child – who loves cats, rather than for someone who is interested in them. It is an ABC in which Martin Leman’s paintings (the most striking is an over life-size portrait, full face, of a white cat with a pink nose and turquoise eyes, backed by red brick mill buildings with smoking chimneys) face pages of text which are in the form: ‘I love my cat with an E although she is Elephantine, Epicurean and Edacious. Her name is Emilia, she lives in Edgware and eats everything Earnestly.’ The words are by Angela Carter. It is a cute joke, a book to go with the pretty china on the dresser.

So one is almost too grateful to turn to John Yeoman’s and Quentin Blake’s The Wild Washerwomen, and should say at once that the drawings show no astounding virtuosity in the re-creation of textures, that the words have no overtones of poetry, that it aims only to tell a funny story with a twist in the end, and succeeds in doing so. Everything works. The mountain of dirty washing, the mad ride in the laundry cart, the spilt market stalls and the final assault on the woodcutters, have the kind of bounce that Rowlandson achieved: a better comparison, though, might be the dance numbers in the more energetic musicals (the story is on the model of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers). Picture books get read an awful lot of times; like the cinema projectionist, the adult reading them develops a deep respect for narrative skills.