This very recent publication from author/illustrator Chris Riddell is, in itself, not really either a children's book or a fantasy, although it is closely related to both. It is a visual notebook of the two years he has just completed as Children's Laureate. However, is an absolute joy of a book and warmly recommended to parents and teachers, especially all you 'woolly liberal lefties' out there; it strewn with his political cartoons from the Observer. It is a veritable treasure trove to dip into for wit, wisdom, enlightenment, inspiration, quotations, ideas, amusement, or simply to lose yourself in his amazing worlds.
The reason this book is here, though, is that its acquisition has motivated me to reflect on some of the real gems of children's fantasy literature with which Chris Riddell has been involved in recent years.
Illustrating Neil Gaiman
One of the truly great pairings of 21 century children's literature has been Chris's as illustrator of fantasy author Neil Gaiman.
Amongst other outcomes this has resulted in two quite stunning picture books, Odd and the Frost Giants and The Sleeper and the Spindle. However calling them picture books might confuse any who (mistakenly) associate such productions only with young children. These two books are certainly not for the very young. They are sophisticated works of considerable literary complexity and richness. The first is a fantasy adventure drawing on Norse mythology and is largely the lighter toned of the two, although not without its own touches of darkness. It is also not without considerable tension, excitement, enchantment - and imagination. Chris Riddel's delightful and copious illustrations are the ideal complement. The second is more of a fairy tale, borrowing traditional elements, but merging these with both reimagination and original invention. Like real fairy tales though (not the Bowdlerised retellings) is is often dark and disturbing. However, it is also funny in parts and overall hauntingly beautiful. Again Chris Ridell's illustrations are the perfect match. These ones are subtly different in style, almost at times reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley. They are haunting. In both these books text and pictures are very special in their own right. Yet it is the two together, with neither dominating, but each complementing, indeed extending, the other, which make these quite superlative editions as enriching as works of literature and as they are beautiful as physical volumes.
Chris Riddell had also fairly recently illustrated each of Neil Gaiman's full-length children's novels, again quite superbly. His additions are truly illuminating.
My favourite is Coraline, for which he illustrated the 10th anniversary edition in 2012, probably so because it is the finest of several very fine Neil Gaiman works. This is such a classic and much-admired work that it needs no recommendation from me. Its simple, important and wholesome message about bravery underpins the multiple layers of resonance of the very best of dark fairy tales. Suffice it to say that any who have somehow missed out should rectify their omission of one of children's literature's deserved icons. Nor should any who know it only from the 2009 animation neglect the book itself. The film may be special in its own terms, but it is a rather different experience from reading the book as written, principally for two reasons. Firstly the Coraline of the text comes across as a very realistic, very human girl. It is easy to identify with her boredom and perceived parental neglect, as well as with her strong personality and sharp mind. The doll-like figure of the film just does not capture this. Even more vital however is the power of the book's language. The text has an elegance of prose, aptly simple and potently effective, which is just masterly. (Quote: 'The Sky had never seemed so sky; the world had never seemed so world. . . Nothing, she thought, had ever been so interesting.') This is an ideal and superbly affecting read-aloud book for the right audience. (Please see note 1.) Unlike the filmic images, Chris Riddell's drawings compliment the text magnificently, adding to, rather than supplanting, the reader's imagination. I think the button eyes of the 'other mother' become even more disturbing in the light of these pictures.
Other Neil Gaiman books which Chris Riddell has magically illustrated also fall into the must-read category. The outstanding and highly entertaining The Graveyard Book, is perhaps somewhat less darkly disturbing than its title and setting might suggest. The drawings fully catch its spine-tingling spookiness and it is essentially good hearted. Similarly the many qualities of the delightful younger children's novel Unfortunately the Milk, again justly award-winning, are perfectly caught and extended in Chris Riddell's integrated illustrations.
Although diverting now from my Neil Gaiman heading, I must also mention here that the Chris Riddell illustrations added to the 2016 edition of Frances Hardinge's masterpiece The Lie Tree, have exactly the same effect of turning a wonderful text into an even more sumptuous one, both as literature and as artefact.
Fantasy par excellence
His work in illustrating the words of others notwithstanding, and despite some excellent books for younger readers which he has also written himself (his Ottoline series and his Goth Girl books are both well worth exploring for those of appropriate age), Chris Riddell's towering contribution to contemporary children's fantasy is his collaboration with Paul Stewart in creating The Edge Chronicles.
This is a vast series of fantasy quest adventures set in the vividly imagined world of 'The Edge', a land 'jutting out into the emptiness beyond, like the figurehead of a mighty stone ship'. In style and substance it is rather more akin to Terry Pratchett than to Harry Potter, although, unlike most of the Discworld books (please see note 2), this is primarily for children. As befits its young audience, this lacks Terry Pratchett's satire, and even his dry wit, however the Edge Chronicles are also very funny at times. More pertinently, though, they effervesce, burst, explode with the most delightfully wild, wacky and original invention. Their imagination almost literally knows no bounds, and in that they are one of children's fantasy's greatest creations.
Whereas many fantasty worlds are based on some variation of our own, at least loosely related to some historical period or other, the wold of Edge is supremely and originally imagined, a world unlike any other with its own totally improbable geography, history and science. Similarly, whilst it has some 'human' characters (and hugely likeable its protagonists are too) many are creatures with little origin beyond their creators ' fertile imaginings. The whole is pure, ebullient joy. Nor are the stories without engaging invention . They are gripping page-turners all with action and excitement in almost every chapter. Exactly what is needed to keep young readers reading.
Chris Riddell is coauthor of these works, not simply illustrator and I suspect his numerous and wonderfully evocative drawings, maps and diagrams are as much a part of the creative process as they are a response to it. The words are not any second fiddle either though. At best stylish and always effectively communicative, they partner superbly with the illustrations to carry each story forward. Of course Paul Stewart must be given equal credit for these brilliant creations. This is clearly a partnership of rare genius.
The original body of Edge Chronicles was created between 1998 and 2009 and covers the exploits of several generations of characters through different periods of Edge history, creating overall a vast integrated saga. It developed into three chronological trilogies and a concluding volume, although they were not written in this order. These now comprise the Quint, Twig and Rook trilogies, followed by The Immortals. There are a number of spin-off stories, too, mostly written for World Book Day, but these have now been incorporated into the latest editions of the main books.
Any of these individual books could be read as a one-off and would provide huge entertainment. However it is the creation of the epic saga of The Edge Chronicles as a whole that is particularly special. In the rich, complex entirety of its mind boggling inventiveness it is one of finest gems of children's imaginative fantasy fiction. Period.
After publication of The Immortals in 2009, the authors seemed to have concluded their epic (apart from some online stories). However I am delighted to say that they are currently in the midst of adding a new sequence, The Cade Trilogy. The first two parts are now published, but we await the final one, The Descenders. I would hope to write more about these as soon as I have caught up with this latest incarnation.
Note 1: I know that a good number of teachers now read this blog and I would not wish to mislead anyone into upsetting young children. Some of Neil Gaiman's books are dark and disturbing. You do need to read first any you are considering using or recommending . You know your children and will be able to decide whether they can cope or not. Most will. In fact they will revel in his weird imaginings and find them 'good frightening' not 'bad frightening'. However a few may react differently.
Note 2: The Tiffany Aching sequence is a highly recommended exception (see my post from April '17) and there are a few others.