Children's Literature

16th December 1994 at 00:00
The Arabian Nights, Retold by Neil Philip. Illustrated by Sheila Moxley, Orchard Books Pounds, 12.99. 1 85213 736 3. Tales from the Arabian Nights, Retold by Stella Maidment. Illustrated by Graham Percy, David Bennet Books, Pounds 11.99. 1 85602 129 7

The great stories of the Arabian Nights - Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Sindbad the Sailor, and many more - are every child's birthright. How soon after birth it is best to meet them, however, is sheer guesswork and depends on individuals. Some children have outgrown them by the time they go to school, while for others their peculiar quality of ceremonial fatalism and patterned artifice comes to life much later in childhood.

Two years ago Brian Alderson's exuberant re-telling was published with the optimistic claim, "all ages". As tales, they are indeed for every child. But Alderson's delightful stylistic blend of mock-archaism and present-day conversational lingo was strictly for the older reader. Every age-group has its claims. Neil Philip caters for the middle years of childhood with a plain and sturdy telling which does not unduly soften the ruthlessness and occasional pessimism of the stories, while Stella Maidment's is the simplest of versions, cut down to the bare bones of narrative for pre-school children.

Neil Philip snootily omits Sindbad ("on the grounds both of length and tedium"), but includes the other best-known tales, along with less familiar ones. Some of his happiest choices are the miniature comedies of folly and parables of wisdom such as "The Ass" and "How Many Fools?" - tiny masterpieces of worldly shrewdness taking only a couple of pages to tell.

Best of all in this collection, though, and the bravest choice, is the lengthy story "Judar and his Brothers". This pessimistic tale is an almost unbearable morality on the incorrigibility of evil and the fatality of innocence and trust. It represents Neil Philip's refusal to compromise with the essential spirit of the stories. Readers of this collection, like King Shahryar himself, must be ready to take the rough with the smooth.

Sheila Moxley's illustrations for this book are a delight. Their brilliant colours are both striking and subtle, and the figures, which are drawn with a stylised childlike simplicity, are set in contexts of sophisticated and beautiful design. Their combination of ingenuous energy and civilised wit is a wonderfully exact and appropriate response to the tales.

For some unaccountable reason all the characters in Graham Percy's illustrations for Tales from the Arabian Nights are depicted as animals. Although it might be argued that the boldly defined moral character of many people in the stories has something in common with a medieval bestiary, in truth they are first and foremost people - crafty and wicked or brave and resilient, but always at the mercy of fate and Allah's will. Even young children can understand that, and the pictures lose more than they gain by taking human features away. All the same, the simple tellings of "Aladdin", "Ali Baba", "The Ebony Horse", and four of Sindbad's adventures will form a lively introduction to the stories for the very young.

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