The Birthday Book, Edited by Michael Morpurgo & Quentin Blake

Taking a leaf from the pages of history makes a charitably good read for today

Nicholas Tucker
Thursday 06 November 2008 01:00

Most second-hand bookshop enthusiasts will have come across Princess Mary's Gift Book, a collection of stories and illustrations by leading figures in children's literature produced in 1914 for the Queen's Work for Women Fund. Notoriously, it included pictures of fairies later claimed to be the real thing in photographs that duped Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a contributor to the volume. Will succeeding generations find anything equally arresting in today's The Birthday Book, another illustrated compendium introduced by royalty, this time in aid of The Prince's Foundation for Children and the Arts as Prince Charles reaches 60?

Certainly, the illustrators on show, including Emily Gravett, Michael Foreman and – in particularly fine form – Ian Beck, hold their own with Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham and other eminences in the first volume. Anyone riffling through this book in another 100 years will be able to see how the British picture-book revival, starting in the 1960s, was still going strong.

The prose and poems are more patchy. Some come from already published works, bringing an inevitable touch of déjà vu. But this also gives readers the chance to rediscover Eva Ibbotson's moving A Place on the Piano, only previously accessible in an anthology. There are some new contributions, many of them excellent. Anthony Horowitz reveals a talent for genuinely funny one-liners in his A Letter from Tom Diamond, and Frank Cottrell Boyce and Eoin Colfer continue to deliver the goods with seemingly effortless good humour. Neither is in the same league as Kipling or Barrie, contributors to Princess Mary's Gift Book. But both get through to readers without ever talking down. Neither do they ignore present social realities – a charge that could be made against the 1914 volume. There is plenty of material in this book critical of modern fathers – and mothers.

The Prince's Foundation is a noble organisation. As Charles explains, it gives under-privileged children access to the arts. The RSC's current touring production of Romeo and Juliet, updated to the world of gangs and knife fights, is living proof that Shakespeare can still enthrall young theatre-goers. Seeing a previous production of this play at Stratford led Charles to start his foundation. Buying this glossy plum pudding of a book will help this good work go further.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments