Kashtanka by Anton Chekhov

This is a children’s book illustrated by Gennady Spirin. The ISBN is 0-15-200539-0. The reason I mention this is that I want to talk about the presentation of the book – something that is obviously very important in a children’s book.

Spirin’s illustrations are absolutely beautiful. The are detailed and have a great amount of depth and character. Unfortunately, they are also very dark. This wouldn’t be a bad thing except that the pages are very glossy, meaning that I had to struggle and essentially read in the dark just so that I could see them at all. It was such a shame and obviously a huge downside if this book is to be shared with kids.

The other big issue I took with the presentation of the book is that the text boxes looked too simplistic. There was no relationship between the illustrations at the text. Rather, half the page would just be white with text or, at best, there would be a thin and undecorated yellow border.

The story itself was so-so. As far as Russian classical authors go, I might be least familiar with with Chekhov. Because of this, it’s rather difficult to judge what the story might have been like in the original language. That being said, I think it would have taken more than just changing the choice of wording to save the story. It was just very superficial. For example, when Kashtanka’s masters find her again, the man who had taken her in is never mentioned again – despite the fact that he had spent a lot of energy to train her, may well have grown to like her, and would be left without an act once the dog left. In that sense, the story is very much incomplete.

I wouldn’t bother buying this book.

Saints by Ruth Sanderson

The text was awful. It was written in a very point-by-point fashion that is barely interesting to an adult with a passion for religious tradition – I can imagine how dull it would be for a child who has a smaller tolerance for dullness. Take this sentence from the biography of Saint Lawrence for example: “Valerian hoped that if the flock of Christians had no shepherds, they would hopefully scatter” (emphasis mine).

That being said, the illustrations were beautiful – significantly raising my rating of the book. It’s worth it if we intend to use it as a picture book, or if parents fill in their own stories based on the text rather than just reading it out.

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Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson (illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt)

Read: 29 November, 2008

I picked up this book because the concept struck me as such a wonderful idea that I didn’t want to pass up the chance and risk not being able to find it (or of forgetting about it) when I have someone age-appropriate in the house to share it with. I’m really glad I did!

The book is superb, from cover to cover. The art is gorgeous. For some reason, a lot of children’s books have awful squiggly line art, as though kids wanted to see drawings that were apartment made by people at their artistic level. Maybe that’s true for some children, but I never appreciated being talked down to – even artistically. In this book, the illustrations (mostly watercolour, with some shiny gold detailing) are absolutely enchanting. They feature plenty of pictures detailing the process of making a book in the Middle Ages, as well as city streets and even maps of Medieval Paris.

The story itself is quite good, though fairly standard. Marguerite’s father makes books, but he’s getting too old. The deadline for a new book is coming up, but he’s broken his glasses, so Marguerite has to finish the book on her own. She walks around Paris shopping for the ingredients and then goes home to work on the book. The deadline comes and she’s finished it and the book is very beautiful and everyone is happy and proud of her.

The book is quite educational: going through several Medieval trades (including tanner and herbalist) and explaining in fairly good detail what goes into making a book. There’s an explanation of how each colour is made, how the actual painting is done, what the “paper” is made out of, etc. And then there’s all the added information contained in the pictures themselves, such as what a Medieval street might have looked like, how people dressed (depending on class), and so forth.

If I had to pick something negative to say about the book, it would be Marguerite’s treatment of the tanner. It only lasts a page, but she just comes off as being rather rude. I suppose it’s historically accurate, but it just isn’t very nice. Then again, that just opens up a nice time to talk to kids about treating everyone with respect, even if their job makes them very stinky.

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