Green djinns and a green boy: the best summer reading for children

Melanie McDonagh’s selections include adventures in Wonderland and in space

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

It’s the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland — cue an explosion of editions of the book, a new biography of Lewis Carroll, make-and-do books, jigsaw puzzles and general Alice overload. In a way, it’s all dandy. Alice is part of our collective consciousness, even though for modern children it’s chiefly through the medium of assorted films. The Lewis Carroll industry hasn’t, however, even tried to rehabilitate his two later Sylvie and Bruno works, now unreadable thanks to the late-Victorian fashion for babytalk.

Trouble is, the cult of Wonderland has rather blinded us to the fact that Alice unexpurgated is actually quite hard for contemporary children. Of course any child will like a white rabbit with a pocketwatch, but the language and mental world of the book is so much of its time that it doesn’t make for an easy read. Through the Looking-Glass is a challenge for children who don’t know the first thing about chess.

Take the little incident that precedes the Caucus race, when the creatures who have been swimming in Alice’s pool of tears try to dry out. The mouse declaims:

Are you all ready? This is the driest thing I know. William the Conqueror, whose cause was favoured by the pope, was soon submitted to by the English, who wanted leaders and of late had been much accustomed to usurpation and conquest…

Getting the joke of that depends on knowing that dry as in ‘not wet’ is the same word as in ‘dull and uninteresting’. I’m not sure most children would.

But all’s not lost. There are a couple of versions of Alice which omit passages like this, and just cut to the chase, giving you all the characters and incidents a younger reader needs — done by the author. The Nursery Alice (Macmillan, £12.99, Spectator Bookshop, £11.69 ) is the full 1890 edition, complete with preface and Tenniel illustrations, and it explains tricky words, but the diction may grate (‘Now don’t be in a bad temper about it, my dear child! It’s a very little lesson indeed!’) with a modern reader. Better, I think, is — don’t laugh — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Little Folks’ Edition of 1907 (Macmillan, £9.99, Spectator Bookshop, £9.49) which is dinky in size but has the crucial illustrations and is a sixth of the length of the original. I think it’s the best reading version for younger readers.

What to say about Noel Langley’s The Land of Green Ginger (Faber, £6.99) except that it’s a delight from start to finish? The publishers have reproduced the original longer edition of the 1966 text with inside illustrations by the incomparable Edward Ardizzone. It’s one of those perfect combos of narrative and pictures which stays with you, well, always. For a flavour of the thing, here it is:

I bring you a tale of heroes and villains as in life; birds and beasts just as in zoos; mysteries and magic just as in daydreams; and the wonderful wanderings of an enchanted land which was never in the same place twice.

Plus green djinns and a button-nosed tortoise.

For very young children, it’s the combination of verse and pictures which make for the best bedtime reading, and Captain Jack and the Pirates by Peter Bently and the wonderful illustrator Helen Oxenbury (Puffin, £12.99, Spectator Bookshop, £11.69) is a charmer, about a sand-ship that turns into a galleon, then back again in time for ice cream.

Another charming read-and-look is Lauren Child’s Hubert Horatio: The Millionaire Child Genius (Puffin, £7.99, Spectator Bookshop, £7.59 ). Hubert is the brilliant offspring of ‘frightfully, frightfully rich’ parents. Alas, his best efforts couldn’t stop them falling into penury and ending up in a tower block called Plankton Heights. And you know what? They didn’t mind a bit, because there was always someone available to play Ker-plunk. Nope, I don’t believe it either.

In Their Shoes (Pushkin Children’s Books, £6.99) is a curiosity, a collection of stories from around the world featuring, yep, shoes. I had thought that the gruesomeness of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Red Shoes’, the familiarity of things like Hop O’ My Thumb (seven league boots) and the sheer briskness of the original ninth century (Chinese) ‘Cinderella’ might be offputting; but nope, my eight-year-old really liked it and was unfazed by the chopping-off of feet and heads. The pictures by Lucie Arnoux are mannered, with captivating detail.

Children who fancy a career as an astronaut — more interesting, frankly, than one as a footballer — will love The Usborne Official Astronaut’s Handbook (Usborne, £6.99), in association with the UK Space Agency, which gives you the lowdown on qualifications, the horrors of G-force and how to go to the loo in the International Space Station (into a kind of vacuum cleaner, apparently). It’s full of good practical stuff; but does briefly mention the dispiriting likelihood that future astronauts will probably find themselves working for Virgin, rather than Nasa.

Frank Cottrell Boyce needs no introduction. His latest book for children, The Astounding Broccoli Boy (Macmillan, £10.99, Spectator Bookshop, £9.89), is about a boy who turns bright green after being shoved into a river, and then finds himself a human guinea pig in a research lab. His vicissitudes, of which being green is probably the least, make for an engaging story; the only downside really, is that the moral of the tale — ‘the best thing about people is how different they are’ — is heavily underscored. Interestingly, as he tells us, there really were a couple of green children once, if the chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall is to be believed.

For teenagers, the paperback edition of Leslie Wilson’s Last Train from Kummersdorf (Faber, £6.99) is a beautifully written story of two young Germans’ flight west from the horrors of the war’s end, specifically, the Russians. It’s unsparing, based on the author’s family history, but funnily enough, hopeful rather than bleak.

Puffin has reissued 20 of its best titles over the last 80 years in a series called simply A Puffin Book. It’s wonderful stuff — titles include The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Ballet Shoes and Bogwoppit — and for £6.99 each. Snap ’em up.

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