Saturday, 9 February 2013

Tiny Twisted Tales

Annabel went to the National theatre the other evening to see Hansel and Gretel, courtesy of a class-mates Mum; she had a terrific time and loved the story. Apparently, both girls were "a bit wary" of the final ten minutes due to it being "a bit dark" (I think this is another parent's way of saying, "I think your daughter may be scarred for life but don't blame me, YOU said she could come!")

Similarly, last weekend, the four of us went to the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street to see Seussical which was terrific, a really clever production. I'm sure you're familiar with the Dr Seuss stories; the Cat in the Hat, Green eggs and Ham, the Lorax, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Horton Hears A Hoo and so on. The musical we saw was based on this last one, Horton Hears A Who, and although the original story-line had been tweaked for the stage (resulting in some quizzical expressions from every child sitting nearby), it was still very cleverly done.

Since these two events, I've been pondering the way children's stories are presented and how they address (or try to address) darker, more 'grown up' themes. Let's face it, life doesn't get much darker than an old witch living in a forest who kidnaps children in order to eat them!

When Joseph was very small, some colleagues of mine at the time bought him some birthday presents, one of which was a small, hard backed copy of Werner Holzwarth's The Story of The Little Mole who knew it was None of his Business. Apparently this purchase caused some friction between said colleagues at the 'suitability' of such a book for a very small child. In short, a mole discovers a 'poo' and the story is about him tracking down the owner of it.

But the book is more than that. It is a book which presents a "dirty" topic to children, even though 'poo-ing' is just about one of the most natural things we (all) do on a daily basis (if you’re lucky!). Why do some writers, television makers, film makers even, tackle topics that are seen to be 'off limits' to children? Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids? Horrible Histories? (I know for a fact that if Horrible Histories were on TV when I was at school, I reckon I'd have gone on to become an historian, not dropped the subject like a hot potato).

But I like it, that difference of opinion - one person's "no problem" is another person's "no way", the knock on effect being that this attitude is invariably passed on to their offspring. It's a bit like several books that caught my eye recently, one of which was entitled "Stuart - The Bug Eating Man", with the sub-heading A Tiny Twisted Tale. It's a kids story book in a similar vein as the Grizzly Tales - unlikely to be actually true but nevertheless doesn't shy away from presenting it to kids anyway. The books that I write about here are read entirely by one person; me. I figure that the only person whose viewpoint I can accurately get across is my own (although I have been known to disagree with myself, often most vehemently!) but for this book I enlisted some help. Who better to ask to review a children's book than children?

So, with this in mind I passed the books around the Year 6 class (aged 10 - 11 years) with whom I work, and they wrote (very) brief reviews themselves, with mixed results. Bearing in mind that difference in reading ability and comprehension in the class is considerable, and these three reviews came from each of those abilities (by coincidence, I hasten to add).

Comment One; I liked this book because it was interesting how they (referring to the author) made both a story and a poem. I also liked how the bug man became famous because he had that idea of catching bugs. The book was also good because the pictures explain what the characters are doing.

Comment Two; I liked this book because you can't predict what was going to happen, I'm sure nobody guessed they would become rich. Also, it is horribly disgusting when he eats slugs and bugs which make it good. As well as this, it rhymes very well - the author should be proud of himself.

Comment Three; I thought of this book as very interesting but a little bit childish. I liked the action in the book but I thought more words and rhymes could have been added to the page. Some of the rhymes I thought were inappropriate. The illustrations were somewhat good but once again, a little childish. All in all, I liked the book and if I were to rate it I would give it a 7½ out of 10.

So, is this an all-encompassing review of a set of books, given by a representative cross-section of society? No, of course it isn't, it's just a handful of Year 6's giving their brief comments.

Now, you have to be careful with Year 6 because they spend an awful lot of time trying to act terribly grown up and mature beyond their years. Most of them fail at this, and fail horribly, but generally speaking they don't like to be asked to do something that might be considered "beneath them". With this in mind, I thought I'd better come down the ages a little and didn’t have to go far. No further, in fact, than my own dinner table.

I have a 7 (and three quarters) year old girl and a 10 (and a quarter) year old boy, both of whom lurve books and reading.

So, similar to the Year 6’s, Joseph read the books himself and he said this;

“I liked them in this order Dad – first, the Bug Man. Second, Jenny the Werewolf Hunter and lastly, Pale Henry. I don’t really like a book to be all rhyming so I liked the fact that each page only had a short amount of poetry on. It was short and ……..punchy”.

(his words)

“Okay”, I said. “Anything else?”

“Yeah, I liked that each little bit of poetry had a picture for it”.

Coming down the ages again, and moving from male to female, let’s try Annabel.

“I love those books Dad, they were so good. Jenny was my favourite”. (she grabs books from me and randomly opens her fave book up to page 32, where Jenny is brandishing a baseball bat, clearly destined for a werewolf’s head).

Annabel laughs out loud at the picture, hopefully more at the expression on Jenny’s face than the bat swirling. She then puts them in her order of preference; Jenny first (although this is possibly to do with the wide feminist streak she has running through her), then Bug Man and finally, like many others, Pale Henry.

Ok children, thank you for your comments; duly noted.

What about me then? Personally I really liked the Pale Henry book but, rather than get in a tit-for-tat with my own kids about which was best, I think I’ll just give an overall comment or two.

First off, I always like when a book has been written and illustrated by the same person (how lucky to be able to write entertaining words and draw fabulous pictures to accompany those words!); Calvin Innes is clearly a very talented person.

They have just the right amount of ‘yuk’ factor to keep kids turning the pages, not to mention the fact that, as Joseph said, each page is short and to the point. Come to think of it, you can spend longer looking at the picture on each page than you do reading the text on the opposite page.

I liked the ink splodges here there and everywhere throughout the book but what I wasn’t so keen on were the black and white pictures. I know full well that nigh on 90 pages of coloured pictures would push up publishing costs considerably but I thought it made the books, which were covered colourfully and professionally, look rather cheap on the inside.

I don’t know what age group Calvin is aiming for but I can see that it’s not as broad as I first thought. Young and able readers between the ages of 7 up to less able readers aged around 10, possibly 11 would enjoy these. It’s good to see that Mr Innes has also released a ‘How To Draw With Calvin Innes’ book, as the pictures were a big hit with most children I spoke with.

So, are these fun books to read? Yes they are. Are they likely to still be on the children’s bookshelves in several years time? Possibly. Are they likely to be reached for again and again when the children are at a loss for something to read? Honestly? I’m not too sure about that one, time will tell.

They were fun, but for me, they didn't quite have the magic of the Little Mole and the story of the poo.


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