Monday, March 28, 2011

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet and Macbeth (Usborne Young Reading: Series Two)

All attempts to reproduce the plays in prose for a younger audience owe a debt to Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Somewhat archaic now, they still led the way in demonstrating that it was possible to present these stories without losing any of their thematic resonance and still retain some of the poetry. Their version of Hamlet begins from Gertude’s perspective underscoring the possible truth of her hasty marriage to Claudius before introducing her son and his suspicions in a style which is closer to the mythic tradition.

In writing for a much younger audience still, the writers of this Usborne Young Reading series have decided to pack their versions with dialogue and incident and work much closer to a more traditional picture book approach allowing the illustrations to tell part of the story with dynamic action scenes and abstract imagery. The results are enchanting and more than commemorate their sources. Reading these is to think back nostalgically to the Ladybird Books of my youth, which is where I first visited the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson.

The opening page of Louie Stowell’s Hamlet perfectly captures the cold spookiness of the battlements just before the Ghost appears, Christina Unzner’s illustration showing the two guards and Horatio “huddled together” just as the text suggests, the tension palpable. When Macbeth greets the three witches for the first time, they’re the same despicable hags you’d find in the Brothers Grimm giving the reader a familiar image they can immediately relate to, Conrad Mason’s words allowing the picture to tell the story. These characters are hemmed in by bare walls and battlements.

Serena Rigiletti’s brighter images for A Midsummer Night’s Dream underscore the complexity of the farce adapter Lesley Sims is wrestling with and though her designs pick up the similarities between the royal characters, they’re distinctive enough for the reader to keep track of who’s who as the confusion between the lovers takes hold. That’s aided by the extra pages at the front which introduce all of the characters and helpfully gives phonetic pronunciations for their challenging multi-syllabic names (I’ve been mispronouncing Egeus (E-geeus for years).

Part of me is disappointed that more of Shakespeare verse hasn’t sneaked through, Hamlet’s soliloquies barely rendered, no To Be Or Not To Be. But this is somewhat made up for by the clever way some of the motivational uncertainty is kept. When Hamlet tells Horatio that he’s going to pretend to be mad so that his uncle won’t know what he’s thinking, we’re told “Horatio saw a strange look in his friend’s eye. He wasn’t sure if Hamlet would have to pretend” which puts children firmly in the midst of that lengthy debate, leaving the reader to decide as the story continues.

The books have been written in consultation with Alison Kelly, a senior lecturer in the English Eduction (Primary) department at Roehampton University who has helped to develop the whole of the Usborne Young Reading series, someone attuned to the sensibilities of the young judging by her CV. Perhaps I’m just too old now to really understand how well a child would deal with Macbeth’s moral ambiguity though they’re sure to find funny Flute’s realisation on being cast as Thisbe that he’ll “have to kiss Bottom” because some humour works no matter the age of the reader.

A Midsummer Night's Dream adapted by Lesley Sims (illustrated by Serena Rigiletti), Hamlet adapted by Louie Stowell, Macbeth retold by Donald Mason (both illustated by Christa Unzner) are published by Usborne. £4.99 each. ISBNs and other publications in the series available at Usborne's website. Review copy supplied.

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