The Story of Gulliver by Jonathan Coe, The Story of Antigone by Ali Smith, The Story of Don Juan by Alessandro Baricco & The Story of Captain Nemo by Dave Eggers (Pushkin Children’s Books - 24 October 2013)
As a child I read abridged versions of classic stories like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and The Secret Garden, and these formed a conduit between the stories and, when I was older, the original text. The Save the Story Series takes this concept further—the story is not merely abbreviated but reimagined and reframed by an established author for a young, contemporary reader. Alessandro Baricco says:
It is not very important that the Save the Story books are a faithful reproduction of the original text; what counts is that a child experiences the magic of that story through the narrator’s voice or through the wide eyes of the father or mother who reads it to them at bedtime.
Pushkin Children’s Books published the first four in this series last week in beautifully-illustrated hardback editions. But these stories were first published in Italian, by Alessandro Baricco in collaboration with the Scuola Holden in Turin—which was specifically founded to develop new and innovative ways of telling stories.
I have always been a fan of Gulliver’s Travels; it is one of those accessible books that can be read on different levels—as adventure or satire. Jonathan Coe’s Gulliver is a very faithful rendering of the elements of the original tale though communicated with a lovely clarity and simplicity. I had to dig out my copy of the Jonathan Swift’s version to really appreciate the skill of Coe’s elucidation. The story is further enhanced by the stunning woodcut-style illustrations by Sara Oddi. I particularly enjoyed the horsey Houyhnhnms. (Though I still have no idea how to pronounce this.)
Ali Smith’s Antigone is a darkly humorous take on the classic Greek tale. The story is narrated by a wise old crow; an interesting new perspective. There is also a Greek chorus of elders that intercede and reflect throughout the story with increasingly awful rhymes. This creates a rather surreal Dr Seuss/Greek tragedy mash-up. Laura Paoletti’s muted illustrations create a lovely, melancholy backdrop for the drama.
Don Juan is a colourful tale but not one that I ever read as a child. (Closest I’d come to this story was Johnny Depp’s delusional character, Don Juan de Marco.) But the name 'Don Juan' itself has become synonymous with prolific sexual prowess and it was fascinating to read a version of the origins of this tale. This story is retold by Alessandro Baricco, the editor of the whole series, and reflects the passion he feels for Save the Story. The illustrations, by Alessandro Maria Nacar, also demonstrate a stylish and dramatic flair.
Captain Nemo’s giant squid is something that captured my imagination as child and so this is the book that I was looking forward to the most. To be fair it is not the original novel by Jules Verne but the 1954 Disney film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that I primarily recall. Dave Egger’s Captain Nemo features wonderfully ethereal illustrations by Fabian Negrin; the Nautilus itself is a lustrous, mollusk-like creature that shimmers in the gloom of an undersea world. As Dave Eggers rightly explains in his afterword, the book was never about the giant squid; the mysterious creature of the deep that they were hunting was in fact the Nautilus and its enigmatic captain—Nemo. The story is well told and well adapted to a contemporary context but I was still a bit sad that the giant squid did not feature as much as I’d hoped.
Save the Stories is a worthy initiative and I believe that each retelling, however creatively interpreted, can only enhance the value of the original. These books are beautifully written and presented for adults as well as children. The publisher suggests they are suitable for children aged 7-10 but you might want to hold off on Don Juan’s descent to hell, or Ali Smith’s flesh-eating crows for a few years—or at least don’t read it to them at Halloween.