A couple of weeks ago I did something I hadn’t done since the days when records were records, made out of round plastic and sold in shops made of bricks – I left work at lunch time and rushed down Park Street in Bristol to buy something on its day of release. It wasn’t an LP, but a children’s book by Jon Klassen and Lemony Snicket, entitled The Dark.
Of course Blackwell’s hadn’t bothered to get it in stock, so I moped back to work, and toyed with buying a copy from Amazon. But I kept the faith, determined to rekindle that ‘bought in a shop’ sensation that had once been my weekly fix, until everything went digital. I’m glad I held out because a couple of days later I tracked a down a copy in Bradford on Avon’s wonderfully reliable indie bookshop Ex Libris.
The point of all this being there are only a few things left where laying my hands on them in the physical realm really matters. For all the attractions of the e-book and the whistles and bells of associated apps, picture books are still best experienced in their original dead tree format.
And what a gorgeous thing The Dark is. Klassen’s digitally created artwork translates beautifully to the printed page. Great swathes of the book are dominated by black, with the muted colours and scratchy lines of the creaky old house illuminated only by young Laszlo’s torch. Even the unusual mid-sized format is special. It reminds me of those old 10 inch albums, a touch that instantly appeals to the old record collector in me.
Having already hoovered up all of Klassen’s other picture books, those strange tales of shifty rabbits and vanishing hats, the completist instinct kicked in. I ordered up a series of three Klassen illustrated stories about The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.
Maryrose Wood’s stories have been compared to his collaborator on The Dark, Lemony Snicket. ‘The Best Beginning Since The Bad Beginning’ it says on the front of The Mysterious Howling. It isn’t, but we do meet our likeable heroine, a plucky Jane Eyre-ish Governess called Penelope Lumley, a recent graduate from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females taking up a post in a stately pile surrounded by an ancient forest.
Lumley discovers her new pupils cowering and howling in a barn, a recent catch from one of her new master’s, Lord Ashton’s hunts. These wild creatures have been raised by wolves and are labelled the Incorrigibles by the high strung young Lady of the manor, Constance, and given the heroic, but unpronounceable names Beowulf, Cassiopeia and Alexander by Lord Ashton.
But many a mystery lurks at Ashton Place – who are these children? What are the strange noises coming from the attic? And why are there still wolves roaming around Victorian England three centuries after their extinction? These are the sort of questions that trouble Maryrose Wood’s narrator, who often lapses into explanations, digressions and extended ponderings about the world of the Incorrigible Children.
Like the guidebook Penelope consults in The Hidden Gallery, ‘Hixby’s Lavishly Illustrated Guide to London’ (‘Smashing pictures, bracingly alpine’) Wood leads us on a merry dance of around Olde London Town. Along the way Penelope and the Incorrigibles encounter a thief in a train carriage, an unsettling old gypsy, move into a town house that looks like a castle and play havoc with the Queen’s guard. It’s like being shown around the past by an American tourist, seeing sights that are familiar but with details that are a little misinformed.
Jon Klassen is best known for his drawings of disgruntled and shifty looking animals in hats (as in the Greenaway award winning This is not my Hat), so I was interested to see what he would do with people, some with hats.
Klassen said in a recent interview that for a long time he shied away from portraying ‘characters’, ‘it’s been a block, so I’d draw chairs or rocks or trees’. The breakthrough came when he drew a greeting card ‘with a bunch of animals in party hats, looking indifferent. I can believe in an animal that doesn’t want to be in my drawing.’ His subjects are like unwilling participants in a photo shoot to who he says, ‘You just need to hang on, then go back to your dignified life.’
The approach for the Incorrigibles is much the same. Klassen produces single page plates in the old fashioned style, each one accompanied by a witty line of text. The characters usually appear still, or caught in action, staring straight down the lens. They are arranged like cast members from one of Lady Constance’s fashionable ‘tableaux vivant’.
Which isn’t to say that they are lifeless. In The Hidden Gallery Wood writes a brilliant piece of slapstick in which Penelope dashes through the hallway and slips over on the polished floor, sliding on her derriere all the way into the adjoining drawing room where she comes to a halt underneath Lord Ashton’s armchair.
The accompanying picture made me snort with laughter, Penelope appeared to have become a victim from Edward Gorey’s Gashleycrumb Tinies.
Elsewhere the physical comedy leads them into real threat. After rather enthusiastically dancing a ‘schottische’, the Incorrigibles stumble accidentally into Lord Ashton’s study. The walls are covered with the prize heads of the Incorrigibles old pals from the forest. There’s a little emotional tug for readers of Klassen’s other books too. The children have stumbled upon inanimate versions of his beloved, befuddled characters.There’s even a shifty rabbit on display, shot and stuffed.
But Klassen can’t keep the animals at bay for too long. The children adopt a squirrel called Nutsawoo and in the third book in the series The Unseen Guest they go back into the forest in search of a brand new arrival in the Jon Klassen bestiary, a very startled looking Ostrich. Though as Maryrose Wood might wonder, is there any other sort?