Classic line

21st November 1997 at 00:00
THE PUFFIN TREASURY OF CLASSICS. Puffin Pounds 19.99.

THE ROALD DAHL TREASURY. Jonathan Cape. Pounds 19.99.

REBEL REBEL. Edited by Gene Kemp. Faber. Pounds 10.99.

Once upon a time, books - not only children's books - were beautifully printed on heavy paper and properly bound, and some even had silk bookmarks sewn into them. And the contents were nourishing, too. Well, apparently there are still some books like that. The Puffin Treasury of Classics is a big, rich, handsome volume full of good things, like the very best sort of Christmas hamper.

Puffin were shy about giving credit for the selection: there's no editor named anywhere, but apparently Helen Levene selected the prose and Emma Matthewson most of the verse, and the overall editor was Jane Nissen. I'm happy to name them here. The selection favours the pre-20th century, but what is a classic, after all, if not something that has lasted?

And more or less everything you'd expect to find is here, or bits of it, anyway. As well as the obvious but welcome ("Jabberwocky", "Hiawatha's Childhood") there are the less obvious but interesting (a slice of Frankenstein, a song from Milton's Comus) and the I-thought-I-knew-that-but-obviously-I-didn't: the whole of "The Spider and the Fly" (I didn't even know it had an author: her name was Mary Howitt), and Felicia Hemans' "Casabianca", today known only for its first line. Now we can read what the boy was doing on the burning deck. It's hearty stuff.

The editors have assembled a notable crew of illustrators, too: among others, Emma Chichester Clark has fun with Mary Poppins, Raymond Briggs does a brilliantly comic Jim who ran away from his nurse, and the great Fritz Wegner's apprehensive Fly and toothily seductive Spider are superbly rendered. This is a beautiful book.

Another treasury comes from Jonathan Cape, and this one contains nothing but Roald Dahl. Like the Puffin, it's well designed, lavishly illustrated, and built to last. There are extracts from all the well-known books, as well as some unpublished pieces, and the publisher has commissioned a number of new illustrations to supplement the familiar ones.

I'm a little puzzled as to whom this volume is intended for. Dahl fans will have all the books already, and Pounds 19.99 is a lot to pay for the few bits you might not have seen. Those who are unconverted might find a slight air of exclusiveness in these pages: an assumption that everyone who matters is part of some big Dahl club where the members know all the passwords, and greet the rituals with jocular familiarity, and where the newcomer is left feeling slightly on the edge of things. But that just might be my reaction to Dahl in general.

What is interesting is to see the effect the different illustrators have on the text. Quentin Blake, of course, brings a kind of springy joyful innocence to it which, I am convinced, is a large part of the reason for Dahl's enormous commercial success; the daylight to his darkness. On the other hand, Posy Simmonds's shiveringly sinister Headmaster (almost more evil in his Archbishop's robes than beckoning the victim to the sofa) resonates with the text instead of against it, and the result is powerfully frightening.

Rebel Rebel, an anthology of stories and poems about rebellious girls, has a jacket of stupendous ugliness. Not only is the illustration repulsive, clumsily assembled, and badly printed, but the editor's name appears in the same tone as the background, and thus is almost impossible to read.

What a pity. The editor is Gene Kemp, and she's assembled a number of good things in a collection ranging from the Book of Genesis to Judith Wright, by way of George Eliot, the Bront s, Marianne Moore, and others. I was glad to see a piece by Tim Kennemore, whose books I greatly enjoyed when they were coming out 15 or so years ago. Where is she now? There is also a fine Russian folk tale, of the same family as "Cinderella", but with some of the zest of our own "Mossycoat". Tough stuff all round.

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