This is a particularly pertinent book to read for me at the moment, what with me attending the Birmingham Festival of Children’s Literature in November where Chichester Clark and Morpurgo will be discussing their latest collaboration: Pinocchio. And listening to them talk is a very, very exciting prospect for me.
Morpurgo is one of those authors who will forever be in my heart for two, very distinct reasons. One of those is the ineffably beautiful ‘Waiting for Anya’ and the other can be sumed up in one word: Topthorn. He is good and joyous at what he does and hearing him talk about writing is a prospect that thrills me beyond words.
Chichester Clark, perhaps best known for her heart-tuggingly lovely Blue Kangaroo series, is an illustrator who has often been at the edges of my children’s literature frame of influence (in a way, rather reminiscent of Susan Cooper) and it is a discourtesy that I’ve not featured her work before. In ‘Up in Heaven’, a book which I’ve added to my list of books featuring bereavement, she explores the death of a beloved family pet and does so with a kind and moving and sensitive touch.
And so, to see these great two collaborating on Hansel and Gretel is a most splendid and brilliant thing. Morpurgo’s retelling of this story fattens (badumtish) it out substantially, throwing what we know of the Hansel and Gretel story into shade and giving us a family in crisis, an exploration of parental love and a genuinely unnerving witch. His prose, as ever, is almost edibly aural in nature and this is a book that will sing when read out loud.
Chichester Clark’s art is a beautiful counterpoint to this solid, smart prose. In Hansel and Gretel she has, what I would describe, as a look and look again style. It is art that makes you feel comfortable, almost instantly, and yet makes you double take and notice the fine, clever details. And the unnerving details. This retelling of Hansel and Gretel offers us a dark, scary edge with a witch with piercingly evil eyes and a hungry, hungry forest desperate to claim Hansel and Gretel as its own.
There’s also some very clever work in this book with height and construction and framing. The long, unnerving outline of Belladonna, the shadow she casts over Hansel and Gretel, and the way that the soft, romantic overtones of the image are belied by the ice at the heart of Belladonna’s eyes. This is what I mean by look and look again art. It is art that looks one way but somehow makes you pause and fall into it and end up feeling the complete opposite of what you felt before. And isn’t that one of the things about Hansel and Gretel? That appearances are not everything? That all that glitters is not gold? Chichester Clark’s art is so hugely clever here.
And do you know what? I can’t wait to see what they do with Pinocchio.