Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Children's books show & tell: Pinocchio and friends

Illustrated children's books are a fortunate domain, in that so many fine artists contribute to them. Here are a few that stand out, among our ever-changing array.
This Is a Poem That Heals Fish
Even though I initially thought the title a bit fey (even for a kids' book), I was intrigued by the cover artwork, so decided to give it a go. Published in France as Ceci est un poème qui guérit les poissons, the book has enchanting illustrations by gifted artist Olivier Tallec (and the storyline turned out to be a bit of all right as well!). Here are a few pics and excerpts. (The boy's mama tells him to trying giving his sick fish a poem, so he makes the rounds of his acquaintances to see what a poem might entail.)
Arthur goes to see his friend
Mrs. Round, the baker
She sells a loaf of bread and three rolls to Ms. Point.
—A poem?
I don't know much about that.
But I know one, and it is hot like fresh bread.
When you eat it, a little is always left over.
Arthur asks old Mahmoud
who comes from the desert
and waters his rododendrons
every morning
at 9 o'clock.
Another beautifully crafted title is a newly translated version of Carlo Collodi's classic, Pinocchio.
Its illustrator, Sara Fanelli, grew up in Florence (near to the Tuscan town Collodi came from) and was inspired by the Russian avant-garde and Paul Klee. Her whimsical collages for this edition were singled out by The Guardian in a series on contemporary illustrators:
With an off-beat humour and an inventive approach to everything from page design and typography to choice of materials, she has the kind of vision you might associate with illustrators such as the Czech Kveta Pacovska or Wolf Erlbruch in Germany, or the American Lane Smith (of Stinky Cheese Man fame)…. There are some magnificent double spreads - like the one featuring the fox and the cat, the background of which combines the delicately engraved tracery of a 19th-century pastoral scene with the subtly different textures of a contemporary landscape photomontage. In the foreground the fox and the cat, cut from murky, mottled paper and fly blown parchment, are deliciously sinister…. Perhaps most beautiful of all is the collage showing Pinocchio at the house of the blue fairy, imploring her to open the door. "Nobody is living here," she says enigmatically, "everyone is dead." There's an eerie stillness, and Pinocchio - as ever, in profile; sadly, we never get to make eye contact with him - is a poignant little figure, with an eloquent smattering of text on his outstretched arms. With its muted colours and carefully balanced geometric composition, there's an echo here of Klee's 1929 Clown painting.
And there's a surprise at the end, with the final picture of Pinocchio, after he's become a real boy. Here Fanelli has used an old sepia studio photograph of a solemn boy, in Sunday best, posing somewhat woodenly - and symbolically - beside a gnarled tree trunk. Fanelli is clearly reluctant to let go of Pinocchio the puppet, and on the boy's face she has inked in a pointy nose and the familiar conical hat. Is she trying to subvert the moralistic ending? "No," she says, "I just wanted to suggest that he might retain something of his former playfulness, a little of his old life, his misadventures - and I'm sure Collodi would understand that.


  1. It's probably just me, but I find The Poem that Heals Fish a lot more appealing than the Pinocchio. I like the round pastel shapes better than the angular collage of the latter, and a child may find the pale half-moon of Pinocchio's face off-putting.
    Of course, there might be a 5-year-old Klee connaisseur somewhere, who will surprise me.

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