Next month sees the publication of our new TreeTops Greatest Stories series. Each of the 35 titles is beautifully retold and illustrated by some of our most popular authors and illustrators. We’re also fortunate to have best-selling author Michael Morpurgo as Series Editor and Kimberley Reynolds, Professor of Children’s Literature at Newcastle University, as Series Advisor.
Over the next few weeks, our TreeTops Greatest Stories authors will reveal the inspiration behind the stories they have retold and share insights into the writers and illustrators who have influenced their own lives.
For most writers and critics, Shakespeare is the all-time, undisputed champion of the world of story: the best plots, the best characters, the best beginnings-middles-and-ends that the human imagination has ever invented.
Also, though, the best words … Ah, yes, the words. It’s these that can put people off. After more than 400 years, reading Shakespeare today is a bit like trying on Elizabethan costume – it takes practice to get used to the ‘fit’ of it. In retelling for 11-year-olds three of his greatest plays, I knew at once that finding the right kind of words would be my chief problem. How could I get across the sheer fun of his Christmas story Twelfth Night, a tale of shipwrecked twins struggling to make their fortune in a foreign land? Or the clash of ambition and honour in his political drama Julius Caesar? Or the near tragedy of his dark, dark fairy story The Winter’s Tale? For me, the only answer was to keep my words as simple and up-to-date as I could and let the plots, the characters and the beginnings-middles-and-ends take over what was on the page.
At least, that was my plan. The trouble is, you can’t shake off Shakespeare’s genius so easily. Every so often, an echo of his words kept creeping in:
“This is Illyria, lady …
‘If you have tears prepare to shed them now …’
‘… a sad tale’s best for winter.”
Here are three great tales, then, by the world’s greatest ever storyteller. If they hook young readers on stories, I’ll be delighted. If they also give a hint, however small, of Shakespeare’s use of English at its most magical, I’ll be thrilled.
Why didn’t anyone tell me that Don Quixote is so funny? His adventures are crowded with pratfalls, fighting, ridiculous heroes, low villains, jokes, love, and damsels in distress. Yes, Don Quixote’s grasp on reality isn’t exactly powerful, but that doesn’t make him any less lovable, kind or brave. Best of all, Don Quixote is a story about the power of stories, and the only problem with adapting it was that Cervantes’s two books about Don Quixote run to nearly a thousand closely printed pages, and to find room for all the best bits required cunning almost worthy of Ginés the Baddy.
I can see now that Don Quixote was the forerunner of some of my favourite childhood books: there’s a flying horse (well, sort of) just as in Narnia, and a servant and master going on a long quest just as in The Lord of the Rings; there’s magic (again, sort of), foolish rich men and wise poor ones, old stories and new ones. There’s even a story that Shakespeare pinched. In short, it’s just fabulous, in every possible sense of the word.
Emma was one of the first ‘grown-up’ books I ever read. The old copy of my mum’s that I found in the bookshelf was dark red. It smelled of dust and contained what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of pages made of paper that was so thin it was almost transparent, and covered with very tiny black writing. It seemed very daunting. But as soon as I read that famous first sentence, I was hooked.
Because, like all the stories I’ve ever loved, Emma takes you directly into another world, another person’s life. Jane Austen wrote that Emma was a heroine ‘whom no-one but myself will much like.’ But I liked her. I still do, actually. She’s bossy, big-headed and sometimes mean. But she’s also funny and clever and she gets things wrong when she’s trying to do right. Just like the girls we’ve all been to school with. Just like ourselves.
So when I was asked to think about a story to retell for the TreeTops Greatest Stories I immediately thought of Emma. I knew young readers would love her as much as I did, laugh at her jokes, cry when she cries, feel cross with her when she’s mean to poor Miss Bates, and share her joy when she gets her happy-ever-after. And I didn’t want them to be put off by hundreds and hundreds of pages covered with very tiny black writing.
The first book I read completely on my own was an old copy of Alice in Wonderland with beautiful colour plates by Gwynedd M. Hudson. I can remember exactly where I was sitting when I read it, on the floor in front of the fire at my grandmother’s house, and as soon as I reached the end I turned back to the beginning and started it all over again. I hadn’t realised that books could do that, could transport you directly into somebody else’s brain and let you see the world through their eyes. And those were the books I loved as a child and that I still love. Lewis Carroll (I thought Through the Looking Glass was even better than Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland!), James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks (why didn’t he write any more children’s books like that?), Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time, Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams and an extremely strange book by Erich Kästner (as in Emil and the Detectives) which I think is now out of print, called The 35th of May.
They’re all books that open doors into mysterious, sometimes frightening, often strange, but always compelling new worlds, whether that world is a small village in England in the early nineteenth century or the inside of somebody else’s head.
TreeTops Greatest Stories is a timeless collection to capture our literary heritage, coming in May 2016. Find out more about Greatest Stories and watch Michael Morpurgo being interviewed and reading extracts on the TreeTops website.