Adding colour to the classics

15th October 2004 at 01:00
JONATHAN SWIFT'S GULLIVER. Retold by Martin Jenkins. Illustrated by Chris Riddell. Walker Books, pound;14.99

SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT. As told by Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Michael Foreman. Walker Books, pound;14.99

PETER PAN AND WENDY. By JM Barrie. Illustrated by Robert Ingpen. Templar, pound;14.99

ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. By Lewis Carroll. Illustrated by Michael Foreman. Chrysalis Children's Books, pound;16.99

Jane Doonan casts an eye over some new illustrated editions of classic English texts

Time tells. Here's a quartet of texts which between them span six centuries and still inspire new interpretations.

Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, first published in 1726, was intended as a satirical comment on 18th-century Britain, but much of it has contemporary relevance. So who better to create an edition containing all four voyages for today's readers, child and adult, than Chris Riddell, political cartoonist for The Observer and Kate Greenaway medallist, in collaboration with Martin Jenkins, past winner of The TES Information Book of the Year Award. The deadpan humour of Jenkins's text - Gulliver's diary - describing everything so earnestly, scrupulously and disingenuously, is the perfect foil for Riddell's meticulously detailed, wildly inventive and cuttingly funny cartooning (as in the illustrations shown here).

The first two voyages have always appealed to children. If anything will lure them to sign on with Gulliver, it will be Riddell's drawings of the floating island of Laputa, from which the king keeps an eye on the rest of his kingdom. The maddest people Gulliver meets are those who study politics. Important government ministers forget their promises very quickly and a cartoon portrait of an instantly recognisable politician shows him having his ear tweaked and a pin about to be stuck in his bottom to remind him. Glubbdubdrib, island of ghosts and magicians, offers more accessible amusement, and the final voyage to the kingdom of the Houyhnhm, where the gift of reason is bestowed on horses and withheld from humans, leaves younger readers with something to grow into. Cover to cover, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver is a triumph.

On New Year's Eve at the Court of King Arthur, the great doors burst open and a marvellous story unfolds as Michael Morpurgo retells Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The original poem, written in about 1400, stands first among medieval English romances in the strength of its ingeniously constructed plot containing two interlocking adventures: the Green Knight's challenge accepted by Sir Gawain, involving two ensuing beheading matches (cut off my head and in a year's time I'll cut off yours); and the temptation of Sir Gawain by the lady of the castle of Bertilak, which is primarily a test of chastity, honourable behaviour and truth to the pledged word. Although he doesn't know it, the outcome of Sir Gawain's second match against the Green Knight depends on his conduct at the castle.

Morpurgo's narrator, in oral style, relishes the drama of events, while Michael Foreman's atmospheric paintings bear witness to the excitements of the hunts, the allure of the lady, and the icy splendour of the winter landscape. Green typeface and decorative borders add to the pleasures of an elegantly designed book.

This is the centenary year for the first performance of JM Barrie's Peter Pan, and to mark the occasion there is a new edition of his novelisation of the stage play, Peter and Wendy, first published in 1911 in the US (it reached the UK as Peter Pan and Wendy in 1918). Students of narratology and psychoanalytic theory will find plenty to interest them in the complex text, but the unstable narrational persona and ambiguities of address will leave most children bereft of a flying harness. Still, there is plenty to wonder over in the illustration by Robert Ingpen, Australia's distinguished Hans Christian Andersen medallist. You could believe that the drawings and paintings, so tender, delicate, and robust by turn, are from the sketch-block of an artist who went to Neverland and faithfully recorded the extraordinary characters and scenes he observed there.

Michael Foreman is one of the most accomplished collaborative illustrators of our time, but some texts are less well suited to his lyrical style than others: this is the case with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. Foreman's approach has been influenced by his enthusiasm for Lewis Carroll's photography, which shows Alice Liddell with the air of a very determined and spirited character. However, Foreman's interpretation portrays an insubstantial child in Victorian costume, who doesn't live up either to the psychological and physical presence of the photographs or, more importantly, to what the text tells us about her and the dreamworld she creates for herself.

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