Puffin Classics at 30
As it marks a landmark anniversary, the children's publisher hopes to rival the appeal of video games, reports Genevieve Roberts. Leading authors cite their favourites
Sunday 04 March 2012
For a generation of children, it provided affordable editions of The Jungle Book, Pinocchio and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, alongside titles by Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Now, in an attempt to lure children away from computers and video games, the Puffin Classics collection, established 30 years ago, is to offer digital versions of its works.
"It's not an either/or for us. As we celebrate 30 years, it seems fitting to look at what the future holds," said Francesca Dow, managing director of Penguin children's division.
Anna Billson, art director, spent more than two years redesigning the classics – maximum of three colours in addition to black and white, and using dramatically cropped images – working with illustrators such as Quentin Blake.
"Design is critically important to our publishing," she said. "Our challenge is to make books desirable: it's a great challenge. Books need to compete with other experiences and stand up to gaming competition."
To mark the 30th anniversary of the imprint, the author Jacqueline Wilson has written an updated "echo" of Edith Nesbit's Five Children and It, to be published in August and entitled Four Children and It.
Ms Dow says the collection has stood the test of time. "Not everything becomes a classic. It's a mix of compelling stories that can be endlessly reinterpreted for different generation, in an irresistible package."
The Wind in the Willows
The most warm-hearted and idealised tale of English country folk ever written. Anyone who has ever lived in a small village will know Kenneth Grahame's Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad intimately. They were my friends when I was a child, and I still love them to this day.
Maps marked with an X! The Black Spot! Pieces of eight! Dead man's chest! One-legged pirates with parrots on their shoulders! Robert Louis Stevenson singlehandedly defined our perception of pirates for ever. Johnny Depp has a lot to thank this literary giant for.
This is the book that opened my eyes to the joys of Charles Dickens. It has everything – comedy, tears, intrigue, unrequited love and a central character who you can't help but adore. This is the book that changed my opinion of the "classics".
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The first book I read that perfectly captured the voice of a real boy. I had never been able to identify with or trust the legions of square-jawed heroes populating the pages of popular fiction, but Mark Twain's Huck hated formal clothes, liked to play hooky and just longed to float down the Mississippi on his raft.
I think it has to be Emily Brontë's classic. Heathcliff and Cathy are so repulsive, but such utterly compelling characters. I adore their passion. My stomach churns at the violence and I wonder at the woman who wrote this novel at such a young age. An utterly original and engrossing book.
A Little Princess
I'm not sure I could have survived childhood without Frances Hodgson Burnett. My sister and I would crawl into the attic of our suburban American house and pretend we were looking across London rooftops. We'd lost our parents and our money, but perhaps a mysterious monk would visit our miserable garret.
In my opinion, J M Barrie's classic will always be the one against which all others are measured. It's a timeless, profound piece that combines a sense of adult wonder and childish possibility with a fine stream of delicious violence. I shall never tire of reading this gem.
Bigger. Fatter. Twistier.
Just So Stories
I loved Rudyard Kipling. My mother read the Just So Stories to me and they were magical – whether it was the confused jaguar or the elephant's child with his 'satiable curiosity. I read them to my son a few years ago and they were as wonderful as I remembered.
A Christmas Carol
This Charles Dickens tale inspired me on two fronts. The story chilled me, a sense of doom building with the arrival of each spirit. Arthur Rackham's intricate illustrations propelled me, later in life, towards a career that revolved around both words and pictures.
Five Children and It
Edith Nesbit's story has four children and their baby brother discover the Psammead, the sandpit fairy who begrudgingly grants wishes. The children wish for wonderful things – to be rich, to be beautiful, to grow wings – but every wish goes hilariously wrong.
Just So Stories
Kipling has suffered in recent times from being considered a product of Britain's colonialist era. However, one of his best and most important books for children rises blissfully above all that. It was the first "wordy" book that I loved as a child, drawing me back to reading it time and again... and then to my children.
Tales of the Greek Heroes
Roger Lancelyn Green wrote a few Puffin classics, all retellings of old stories: Greek myths, Norse legends or stories closer to home. I devoured myths when I was a kid – but I've gone for the Greek ones because these stories are the basis of every tale of heroic fiction since, from Superman to James Bond.
For me, Jack London's masterpiece has everything a good book should have. It's an adventure story and a serious novel. It's beautifully written, has wonderful characters and – perhaps most importantly for me – it doesn't make moral judgements about the world; it simply shows us how it is.
Five Children and It
A grumpy magical creature, real children and wishes going wrong. Perfect! Without doubt, it is one of my favourite books. I must have read it more than 50 times and I can see its influence in so much of what I've written – ordinary children who experience extraordinary magic in their everyday lives. Thank you, E Nesbit!
Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Jules Verne's science fiction adventure is particularly special to me because it was the first book that I read with my nephew, when he was 10. We both read it, and then we spent days talking about it, especially about how we would go on our own journey underground one day.
"Please, sir, I want some more!" My favourite Puffin classic has to be the first Dickens book I read as a young girl. The poor boy's life had the author's desired impact on me. Was life really that bad for children in the past? But in true Dickens style, the happy ending came, and I returned it to the library content.
A Christmas Carol
You can actually look at Dickens's classic tale as a piece of sci fi, as one of the first time-travel novels. Scrooge gets a chance to view a parallel timeline of his life, to get a glimpse of a possible future and use that to course-correct his present. That's a powerful idea and very cutting-edge.
Originally a play, but the subsequent novel benefits from the added luxury of the authorial voice. Barrie's acute and beautifully phrased character portraits are a delight for grown-ups, prefacing the sophistication and knowing tone of recent Pixar movies. And for children: pirates, Indians, fairies, flying...
Tales of the Greek Heroes
One of my earliest reads. I remember devouring almost instantly. Page after page was filled with wonderful adventure and tales of grit from the golden era of Greek mythology that filled me with a sense of wonder and set my imagination roaring.
Through the Looking-Glass
I love Alice, the first English book I read as a child. I loved the pictures by Sir John Tenniel. My favourite quote has become my motto: "In this country it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place – if you want to get any further you have to run much faster."
The Secret Garden
Mary Lennox is an unusual heroine: rude, selfish, spoilt and not at all beautiful. One can pity her: she is, after all, an orphan. The garden, too, has been abandoned. It is a powerful and beautifully simple parallel, and so elegantly written that, 100 years later, the book still feels profound and utterly relevant.
The Happy Prince
I was too young to grasp Oscar Wilde's use of irony when I first read The Happy Prince. But Wilde's questions about humanity entered as invisibly as tiny shards of glass. And, like his little swallow, we still find "the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars [remain] sitting at the gates".
The Jungle Book
Come back Mum and Uncle Mac! What better book to share at bedtime? What more delicious way to float off to sleep than down the glorious, great, grey, greasy Limpopo river, dreaming of stubbornly independent cats, maculate leopards and small, snub-nosed elephant children?
Through the Looking-Glass
With its back-to-front, deeply mysterious world, mirrored chess game, idiosyncratic characters, nonsense poems and esoteric undercurrents, the book's lasting value stems from a radical exploration of what we think is real. We break free, as Alice does, through the mirror into an alternative universe.
Carlo Collodi takes a simple piece of wood and some simple words and carves them into one of literature's great creations. We grin at Pinocchio's daftness, laugh at his promises, gasp at his punishments, sigh at his transformations. He's a puppet in a very weird world. He runs through each and every one of us.
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table
I must have read at least 10 retellings of the Arthurian myths, but none has gripped me so intensely as Roger Lancelyn Green's. He retains the colour and the disconcerting strangeness of Thomas Mallory's Morte d'Arthur, while exposing the central tragedy.
One of the most over-boiled, melodramatic and fantastically insane books ever written. From Van Helsing's blood transfusions, which work regardless of blood type, to the ravings of the fly-eating madman Renfield and the chase through snowy Transylvania, it's ludicrous, bizarre – and utterly transfixing.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
I love Alice and her surreal, dream-like world, and spent a lot of my long-gone art student days copying her dress sense! I loved the idea of falling down a rabbit hole or stepping through a looking-glass into a completely different world where nothing quite made sense...
It was first ingrained into my mind thanks to a starring role in the school musical. Appetite whetted, I explored the source material and found beyond the ditties I knew were words full of power and illustration, as Dickens intended. I pocketed a limited edition recently.
To celebrate the Classic's 30th anniversary, Puffin is offering Independent on Sunday readers a 30 per cent discount on books. Go to: www.puffin.co.uk and enter promo code iospuffin30 at checkout.
Discount is valid while stocks last, until 31 March 2012. Discount will be applied at the shopping basket. It is not valid on eBooks and limited edition/high purchase titles. A notification will appear within the shopping basket is your title chosen is exempt.
For full list of Penguin's Terms and Conditions of Sale and Purchase, please go to: www.puffin.co.uk/static/shoppingbasket/termsofsale.html
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