Children's books - The uses of enchantment


Everyone knows that there are two kinds of stories for children: one in which good children live happily doing ordinary things; the other in which life is transformed by magic and adventure. The first may reassure, but it is this second kind, the literature of the illiterate, that informs the heart. Fairy tales celebrate the imaginative, unconventional, sexy, funny, non- commercial and brave; in this season of religious myth, they let subversion in. "Every great novel is also a great fairy tale," said Nabokov, and whether you read them to your children or yourself, they are worth revisiting on many levels.

First and foremost are Andrew Lang collections (Dover, £7.95). The least bowdlerised and most comprehensive collection of fairy tales ever made, they are illustrated by H J Ford, a pre-Raphaelite whose matchless line-drawings will be explored by children over five for hours. These usually have to be ordered from bookshops, but they are, quite simply, the best. Start with the Yellow Fairy Book, and you'll be hooked.

Those who wish to listen instead should try Ivory Shell's collections (£7). This excellent series now has 27 double boxes from around the world, including Aboriginal, Chinese and Aztec stories, all beautifully read and interspersed with original music. On long drives with small children, these acquire the status of life preserver.

Lower down the age-range there are several treats. Bloomsbury has surged into children's publishing with J K Rowling's Harry Potter novels. It is also now producing superb picture books, the best of which is The Brave Sister (£12.99) by Fiona Walters, exquisitely illustrated, Persian-style, by Danuta Mayer. Appropriately for a tale first told by Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, the protagonist who wins through - by intelligence, as well as courage - is a young woman.

Beauty and the Beast by Adele Geras (Puffin, £6.99) is illustrated by the wonderful Louise Brierley, and is almost too dark. Pictures of the sister in "Vipers and Pearls" vomiting snakes and the gigantic dog in The Tinderbox owe more than a little to Paula Rego; those of a nervous disposition might prefer Favourite Fairy Tales (Walker Books, £12.99), illustrated by P J Lynch. This has everything - a prince riding through a dark wood, a swaggeringly feline Puss in Boots, a Beast who's a dead ringer for Oliver Reed with a bad hangover - and a clear, good text. Lynch is, I think, the greatest illustrator alive - as great as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac and Kay Neilson. For purest winter wonders, order his ravishing East o' the Moon, West o' the Sun and The Snow Queen, both £4.99.

Barefoot Books is another outstanding publisher. This year, two new delights are added to its rainbow of anthologies: a sumptuous version of The Elves and the Shoemaker, with elves hiding in every picture; and Clever Katya, a thrilling Russian fairy tale about an impossible riddle solved by the spirited heroine, illustrated with matching dash and brio by Mary Hoffman.

Older children should revel in Kevin Crossley-Holland's marvellous mixture of legend, anecdote and facts about King Arthur in The King Who Was and Will Be (Orion, £12.99). The pictures by Peter Malone are worthy of a medieval manuscript; like his Adventures of Odysseus, this will inspire the most sluggish boy to dream of quests.

Not every child wants to walk on the wild side. Shirley Hughes is a genius of the quotidian who loves, understands and really looks at the young. Those who seek reassurance for four to eight year olds combined with a dollop of pure magic could do no better than to get her Mother and Child Treasury (Collins, £14.99) collected with her own daughter, Clara Vulliamy.

Scholastic has had the excellent idea of publishing rewritten fairy tales for just £1. Dazzling performances by Philip Pullman, Alan Garner and Michael Morpurgo make this fabulous for party bags and stockings.

Lastly, Narnia has been repackaged by HarperCollins to celebrate the centenary of C S Lewis's birth. An abridged version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, illustrated by Christian Birmingham, costs £12.99. I like Birmingham's work, but hated this, I'm afraid. For older children, the original Pauline Baynes drawings are now hand-coloured by the artist herself in a reissue of the paperbacks.

Re-minted and re-printed, these winter's tales come from a place in the human spirit which we lose touch with at our peril. The uses of enchantment go deeper than religion. Choose one, or more, for a child - or for yourself - while waiting for the spring.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!