Story hoards

1st November 2002 at 00:00
Jane Doonan finds treasure in illustrated collections of traditional tales.

CHILDREN'S LITERATURE

Aziz the Storyteller

By Vi Hughes Illustrated by Stefan Czernecki Tradewind Books distributed by Turnaround, pound;9.95 The Story of Divaali

Retold by Jatinder Verma Illustrated by Nilesh Mistry Barefoot Books, pound;10.99 The Clever Rat and other African Tales

Retold by Suzi Lewis Barned Illustrated by Karen Perrins Ragged Bears, pound;12.99 Hidden Tales from Eastern Europe

Retold by Antonia Barber Illustrated by Paul Hess Frances Lincoln, pound;12.99 Gilgamesh the Hero: the oldest story ever told

Retold by Geraldine McCaughrean Illustrated by David Parkins Oxford University Press, pound;12.99 hardback, pound;8.99 paperback Wizard Tales: stories of enchantment and magic from around the world

Retold by Fiona Waters Illustrated by Fabian Negrin Pavilion Children's Books pound;14.99 Aziz, son of a poor rugmaker in the Middle East, is the presiding genius of the selection of tales retold by Vi Hughes. Aziz discovers that a storyteller's life has many rewards when he exchanges the family donkey for an old, small carpet - the kind that comes in handy in a primary classroom, with all the stories of the world woven into it. Hughes unravels his adventure in a picturebook of modest size and elegant design, with light ochre paper stock and each opening formally bordered in scarlet or dark ochre. Stefan Czernecki's apparently effortless calligraphic black lines carry the flat images: simple to the point of semi-abstraction, unstereotypical, and very beguiling.

Gather round, unroll the carpet. Let's hear a tale from India. The Story of Divaali, retold by Jatinder Verma, is a rendition of The Ramayana, the great Indian epic associated with the Festival of Divaali, which is celebrated by lights, fireworks, gifts, and street theatre. Verma is co-founder of the first Asian theatre company to be set up in Britain, and has written and presented documentaries for radio and television. Not surprisingly, he creates a narrator whose voice infuses the telling with humanity and heightened drama. The sense of performance extends to Nilesh Mistry's illustrations and the design of the book, both of which are outstanding. Mistry's images spring to life on the page in passion and energy. The text ebbs and flows around them and divides to frame them. Colour enhances the mood of the action. Lithe, sensuous characters perform against a backdrop of exotic flowers, pulsing waves, curling flames, and speeding arrows. The front and back matter provide the equivalent of programme notes, with dramatis personae and information about Divaali.

The Clever Rat and Other African Tales is an entertaining collection originating from the eastern countries of Africa. They are re-told by Suzi Lewis Barned who first heard them from her father. The tone of the text is confiding, and characters often have generic names, which saves a young reader from having to negotiate unfamiliar ones. The content is traditional, with rewards for good deeds, some wily protagonists, comeuppance for the proud, and always a wise man around when needed. The book's design promotes a sense of spaciousness in a kaleidoscope of harmonious colour. Bold, simplified images with tactile textured surfaces, geometric decorated borders and paper stock of changing hues make a feast for the eyes.

Antonia Barber brings to light Hidden Tales from Eastern Europe. From Poland we learn that it takes love and kindness and sometimes a little cunning to keep misery at bay; from Serbia, that having a trade is always useful. Other literary lessons for life come from Croatia, Russia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Paul Hess illustrates these welcome additions to any story-hoard in a sequence of elegant bordered paintings, of all shapes and sizes, displaying his characteristic quirky curved horizon line and intriguing narrative detail. These are pictures to pore over.

On to Mesopotamia, to hear about Gilgamesh the Hero, Geraldine McCaughrean's version of the oldest recorded story in the world, from the third millennium BC and originally carved on 12 stone tablets. It's a spell-binding tale of extremes of emotion and situation. McCaughrean makes the hero's journey to enlightenment accessible to children through her command of naturalistic dialogue and vivid imagery. David Parkins's illustrations, with their raw, primeval quality and dominant black line, are a visual reminder of the uncompromising graphic style pioneered by the late Charles Keeping. The images might be relatively small in scale but they carry an epic impact.

Twelve threads from around the world are gathered into Wizard Tales, retold by Fiona Waters. The enchanters include a Scottish warlock, a Transylvanian sorcerer, and great Merlin himself. Some of the tales are interesting variants on ones we already know by other names. Fabian Negrin's illustrations are formal and painterly. The scenes are charged with dramatic lighting effects, and inhabited by solidly modelled figures with hard-edge outlines. The total effect suggests life at one remove from reality, and fitting for the wonders being recounted. Wizard tales, indeed. Time to roll up the carpet, Aziz.

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