'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Monday 15 October 2012

Guest Post: The Return of The Magic Finger, with David Mackintosh

KBR is thrilled to welcome mega-talented author/illustrator David Mackintosh with this fascinating guest post on beloved childhood books.

As a child, I didn’t have too many books, maybe too few, but I did have some good ones: a big illustrated edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and another of The Arabian Nights, Fairy Stories illustrated by Edmund Dulac, Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers, The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorisse, Grimble by Clement Freud and Quentin Blake, several Dr Seuss titles, Busy, Busy World by Richard Scarry, and The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl, illustrated by William Pène du Bois.

On another shelf was Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding and Snugglepot and Cuddlepie by May Gibbs. Plus, a cheap book about the history of flight. In a cardboard box at the side of the bed were dozens of Mad Magazines (US editions) and another box of Oor Wullie and The Broons Annuals, sent to me by relatives in the UK.

I don’t know what happened to my books, maybe they live in an ancient secondhand shop somewhere, but nowadays I find myself re-buying these familiar titles for nostalgic reasons, to see what effect they have on me as an adult reader.

I like and remember them all for different reasons.  

The Red Balloon was a book made with black and white stills from the 1956 French film, with the balloon colourised throughout and the little French boy, Pascal, who looked like me. It was very strange and European but the images didn’t require translation, they were just good to interpret as you wished. Even now, the photographic illustrations captivate me and I can visualise the ‘missing frames’ between pages, something I don’t think I do with ‘drawn’ illustrations. It’s a terrific existential story.

Grimble (and Grimble at Christmas) was a little Puffin paperback that my dad bought me at the Peregian Beach shops when we stopped for an ice block and milk. It was a nice contrast to the summer heat because it’s set in London at Christmas time. The book makes me laugh to this day – the text and pictures – and it’s put me off certain foods, too. I remember my dad reading it at Cabarita Beach, knee deep in the surf, fishing for dart. A few years ago I was given a copy signed by Quentin Blake, and it brought back a lot of Australian memories.

Recently, I bought a rare copy of The Magic Finger, the 1974 edition. The format was smaller than I remembered, like when one returns to their primary school and is surprised at how low the drinking fountains are. The story is about a girl with a magic power she can call upon to make things change, and which she uses against teachers and neighbours.

But it is the illustrations which shocked me. William Pène du Bois illustrated a lot of books in his time (my other favourite is Lion), and I love his darkness mixed with playful humour. I was happy to find the book again and see it from a new perspective.

For starters, I was surprised that the pictures were black and white halftones. I remember them as colour! They are weirdly dark, like Dahl’s story, contrasting with more recent interpretations which are treated in a more silly or whacky way. I like the atmospheric black and white watercolours and Pène du Bois was generous with them. There are full page ones and minor ones illustrating a small point that appealed to him, as though he couldn’t resist making a simple joke.

There’s the clever back-to-back picture of the school teacher turning into a cat, using the transluscence of the paper to achieve the effect. This cleverness of Pène du Bois overrides the sometimes awkward figure drawing. Normally I’d be bothered by a poorly drawn hand or botched perspective when someone was trying to get it right, but he’s not, so it doesn’t matter.

But I think it’s his no-frills anthropromorphism that wins me. The humans shrink and lose their arms and instead have duck wings, whilst the ducks become human-sized, and instead of wings have human arms, complete with pyjama sleeves. This simple transformation allows each species to act the way of the other: the ducks hunting with guns, the humans flying about building nests. For a child, this is both instantly acceptable and satisfying. Then I realise it’s in the text, so Dahl had devised this himself.

Most of the pictures float around on white pages, and the hardback cover is white with just a few graphic elements to attract the reader. I’ve always loved the big black letters on the white, then the flash of colour. As a designer, it looks a bit awkward to me, but it works so well. His style is strangely reminiscent of Harold Jones (Lavender’s Blue) and the bygone world he’s created is extremely evocative. I had no idea where Pène du Bois set his telling of the story back then, but to me now it looks like rural Scotland.

Looking back at something from your childhood after a long interva,l one realises how the memory mixes things up. Some of the pictures are so familiar and I reckon I could draw a copy of them from memory. Others I would swear I’ve never seen before, yet they were always there.

Likewise the names of the characters, “Oh yes, of course… the Greggs”, and the letters on the girl’s hat: ZAK. My nostalgia made up a lot of new dots that my brain attempts to join up with a clumsy, fat poster pen. Seeing the real thing again is reassuring, comforting and immediately pleasing.

I don’t know for sure, but if I ever have to become reacquainted with a long lost e-book, I hope it’s been future-proofed so I don’t have trouble viewing it on my computer.

Learn more about David and his glorious books at www.davidmackintosh.co.uk.