Mary And Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Júlia Sardà

Mary, Who Wrote FrankensteinMary and Frankenstein by Linda Bailey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It has been a long time since I have read something so perfect as this, and if it doesn’t win the Kate Greenaway Medal this year, or at the very least make the shortlist, then I’ll hand in my badge. I’m not sure that I have an actual badge, so to speak, but I’m trying to work on a metaphor that tells you how great this book is and how blindingly, utterly, brilliant it does what it does, and so I’ll hope you’ll forgive me my delirium and go out and buy it straight away. Because it’s good. Honestly, it’s more than that. It’s perfect, and I’m delirious over it and I feel like I want to write a love letter to Andersen to say thank you for letting me take look at it (their edition is out in October 2018, it has the slightly different – and better – title of ‘Mary And Frankenstein’, and have I mentioned you should buy it?). This is a gift, this book, and here’s the part where I tell you why.

Written by Linda Bailey, Mary and Frankenstein explores the story of Mary Shelley. The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the creator of modern science fiction, the girl who loved Percy Bysshe Shelley, the girl who lived, Mary Shelley is a fascinating and complex figure. And in the hands of somebody lesser, her story might have suffered. It might have been reduced to one of those hagiographies we see so often at the moment in children’s literature, and it might have been sidelined for the stories of those people she lived and loved with. But Bailey doesn’t. I knew we were in good hands when I read her author’s note and saw that she’d thanked an academic for critiquing the manuscript. This is everything, my friends, because it shows somebody who takes this seriously. It is a privilege to write these sorts of books, and it is a skill to write them well. Bailey does that. She does that so well. She has a clean, simple, and deeply restrained style that delivers such calmly beautiful lines as:

“Mary’s mother was a great thinker. She wrote books to say that women should have the same rights as men. She died when Mary was only eleven days old.

Can you miss someone you’ve never known?

Mary does”

Just, let that sink in a little. The great grace of that, the restraint of that. The way it gives you everything and manages to hold itself back from giving you too much. It’s brilliantly done. And it’s smartly done. It gives children a chance to find something else out on their own, to fill in the absence with their facts and stories, to look up into the sky and tell their own story. After all, “Writers dream stories, awake and asleep.”

It’s beautiful. And it’s even more beautiful when it’s paired with the incomparable artwork of Júlia Sardà. I’d encourage you to have a look at her website and this review about the process of illustrating this little gothic masterpiece, as her artwork here is almost incomparably done. It’s immense, it’s ferociously unique and particular, and it makes me breathless. Her use of line and colour is so wonderfully done, and she has this great gift of being able to centre her images and find the humanity of them (an apt skill when we consider the topic!). There’s a lot going in in this amazing book and yet, even as the wind whips the trees or as owls fly through the sky, your eye’s drawn to Mary. Her red hair, her white face, her story. She will be heard, she will be seen, she will be told.

Oh this book, I could write for days about it…

I will teach it in my classes, and I will hand it to those who tell me that children’s books are the easy options, and I will nominate it for the Kate Greenaway and I shall will it to win every award on the planet, because it’s outstanding. It’s one of the best picture books I’ve ever read.

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The Liszts : Kylo Maclear, Julia Sarda

The LisztsThe Liszts by Kyo Maclear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully complex and dark, The Liszts is a picture book that stands at the edge of a thousand different classifications. It’s poetry, it’s art, it’s story, and throughout all of that, it’s a quiet instruction to value the arrival of the unexpected and the different within your life. The Liszt family make lists: “lists most usual / and lists most unusual”. These may range from “lists of dreaded chores / and small winged insects” through to “lists that went on for 31 pges / lists to quiet the swirl of his midnight mind”. One day a “visitor” arrives and makes friends with Edward, the middle child. The two of them find a friendship in each other centred around questions delivered in vibrant, thick capitals: “Does anyone own the moon or the sky? / Where do my thoughts come from?”. The book ends with an echo of the opening, “The Liszts kept making lists. Scritch, scractch, / They made lists most usual. And lists most unusual” but this time, the visitor is there in the scene, reading a list of his own.

It’s not a particularly clean and simple book this which is one of its great strengths. The Visitor himself shifts from the perspective of something quite unworldly and odd to something almost benign and it’s hard to think through just what or who he’s meant to be. But perhaps, really, this is one of those books that thrives on that indeterminacy, of asking children to ascribe feelings and motivation to the incomprehensible edge of life and to try and understand those things with rough edges and less than straightforward intent. The Liszts does, I suspect, lean more to the older edge of the picture book market, but again that’s no bad thing. It’s a book that is beautifully produced but also one which thrives on an almost Gothic edge of otherness, something you might see in Neil Gaiman’s work or Chris Riddell. That edge of the world where things aren’t straightforward, but they are.

Artistically, this book is a joy. Sarda illustrates this book with a gleefully weird, almost 1920s edge where the ladies wear turbans and the gentlemen have great and splendid beards. Butterflies are pinned onto the wall, whilst characters sunbathe next to an empty swimming pool, scattered with leaves and detritus. It is a dark, odd, wonderful book this with images that fill the page and defy expectation or predictability. My only slight tinge of doubt is with the font; it’s one of those wobbly hand-written, scratchy jobs that is a little bit difficult to read at times. Aesthetically it’s perfect, yet it would push The Liszts again to that upper edge of the picture book market. But that upper edge is a wonderful, dark, perfect space for this book to inhabit. It doesn’t tie everything off neatly, nor does it place itself squarely into a frame of expectation. It’s not easy to classify, nor is it easy to predict. It is weird, delightfully so, exuberantly so, and it is beautiful.

My thanks to Andersen for the review copy.

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