I have a soft spot for folk-tale reimaginings. I love the idea of taking characters well-known from one story and placing them in new situations. Bill Willingham’s Fables and many of Allan Ahlberg’s fabulous children’s stories are great examples of this. So when I unexpectedly encountered the film trailer for ‘Rise of the Guardians’ my interest was piqued.
Several weeks later I found myself sitting between my boys watching the exploits of Jack Frost, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and of course St Nicholas – a splendid gun-toting Russian with ‘Naughty’ and ‘Nice’ tattooed across his knuckles. The movie, though not without its flaws, is great family entertainment, that sticks to the spirit of its central characters and has a menacing villain. I hope there is a sequel.
When I returned home and discovered the film was based on a series of novels, I became very excited (I don’t get out much these days). I assumed that they must be lost American classics; less famous equivalents of Frank L Baum’s ‘Oz’ books. Not so. This first book was first published in 2011, written by William Joyce a man with many film credits to his name (A Bug’s Life, Robots and Toy Story to name but three).
A quick search told me that there were four novels available, and they were all around £10; quite pricey for children’s books but they don’t have a UK publisher, and so are imports. Still, one review mentioned that the illustrations were gorgeous, so I thought I’d give the first one a punt. I wasn’t disappointed.
The strength of the books is in their appearance. Small hardbacks, with pleasing a slipcover, but better still are the black and white drawings inside the book. Book illustration of the highest order. In particular the dastardly Pitch Black and his shadowy Nightmares. They creep across then page with inky menace.
The story is written in a traditional folk story style, reminiscent of Joan Aiken, an author I love. If I had a criticism, it’s that the language might be a little advanced for the target age of the story. It is a great book to read aloud, but my seven year-old is very keen to read it himself, only to struggle with some of the more difficult vocabulary. Because the stories are true flights of fancy, some of the events are quite abstract and hard to put into context, which makes it difficult for him decode. Having said that, he is captivated by the book, and determined to read it for himself, which speaks volumes for the quality of the story and the attractiveness of its illustrations.
And there is much to captivate here. Wizards, sentient trees, magic sleighs, moonbeams, robots, spells and a hint of Santa. Mix this with some tenacious child heroes, a Yeti army, ghoulish nightmares and some entirely cool swords, and you have a humdinger of children’s story. It’s a little light in places but strong on magic, and as for how Santa became Santa, well that’s not quite addressed, leaving plenty of scope for more stories. Other books follow, introducing the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy and The Sandman. Books I shall be picking up soon.