Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliff and Alan Lee

Following on from yesterday’s piece about the Carnegie Medal I’d like to draw your attention to a book that won its sister Medal.  The Kate Greenaway Medal is awarded for excellence in illustration and in 1993 it was won by Alan Lee for Black Ships Before Troy, a retelling of Homer’s Iliad.  It is just about to be republished by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.

It’s a beautifully written, illustrated and designed book as one would expect from Frances Lincoln.  The text by Rosemary Sutcliff is as well written as you would suppose from a Carnegie Medal winner.  It is written as prose but keeps enough rhythm and pace to remind the reader that it is in fact a poem that is being translated and paraphrased.  And it’s a complex read, reminding us that the Kate Greenaway Medal is not only given to illustrators of books for very young children.

The illustrations are also complex and diverse.  Alan Lee worked in film and in 2004 won an Oscar for his work as conceptual artist on The Lord of the Rings.  Here he brings atmosphere and detail to his watercolours (I think!) of ancient Greece.  The soft tones belie the aggressive nature of much of the story but they are dynamic and engaging.  The overall design is clever, ensuring that the text and pictures work together with neither outshining or overwhelming the other.

2012’s Bookshelf

The other day I was clearing out all the books I’ve received from publishers this year. Don’t worry; they all went to good homes. I dealt with the books for primary children first, as they were being given as prizes, and the picture books had already gone. So I was left with the teenage titles. One of my colleagues took them to pass on to a local organisation which is collecting gifts for young people who might not otherwise receive anything. Hopefully there will be lots of happy teenagers in Moray this Christmas.

But they’ll pretty much only be happy if they like dystopian novels or the paranormal/supernatural. Fairies, vampires, zombies, angels, werewolves and dark spirits of all kinds were clustered on my shelves. And I hate them all! I’ve never met one that I could enjoy reading about. I’m sure some of them are good books. In fact, I know they are. Take a bow, Joss Stirling. But I can’t get interested. Part of my problem is that I’m irritated by publishers jumping on the bandwagon and giving us more of the same – even when it’s badly written, plotted and populated. The dystopian novels aren’t quite as bad but I do think that they’re going the same way as authors run out of anything new to say. But Ally Condie’s Matched trilogy was interesting and I thought that Slated by Teri Terry was a great concept.

Once these genres were off my shelves, I was left with very little. Fortunately some of it was very good. Sophie McKenzie’s Missing trilogy was represented and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Similarly, I am loving Anne Cassidy’s Murder Notebooks. I’m surprised by both of these as I don’t particularly enjoy thrillers. But these are gripping without being a ridiculous strain on the nerves. More to my general taste were the historical novels by the likes of Mary Hoffman, Rosemary Sutcliff, Paul Dowswell and Marie-Louise Jensen, who is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine. And my small Australian collection: Garth Nix, Michael Gerard Bauer and Morris Gleitzman. I met the first two at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year and they were as lovely as their books. (I’ve met Morris Gleitzman previously and he is too!)

Clearly there are other brilliant books out there and I do understand that publishing is a business and it needs to be commercially viable. But my wish for 2013 is that more publishers will be brave and take risks – and that they’ll keep sending me their books!