of the Center for Children's Books:
|Each month we offer a
focus on a particular author or artist, sometimes we use this space
to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like
to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books.
See the archive for focus pieces from previous
It's hard not to feel like one of the blind men with the elephant when talking about an author who writes in a different country-we just don't know what in the body of work we're not seeing. However, that doesn't mean that splendid use can't be made of t he portion of the elephant we dohave access to.
Jan Mark has had an illustrious and award-winning career in Britain since the 1970s, and quite a few of her books have been brought over to the United States, but she's never attained the household-word status of some of her literary colleagues from th at side of the Atlantic. Not for want of quality: Thunder and Lightnings, the story of two boys' friendship that centers on vintage airplanes, remains a rich and unstudied portrayal. A motorcycle-mad girl's finding a niche in a scruffy bike sh op is absorbingly depicted in Handles. In the casually tender Trouble Half-Way, a shy, cautious girl develops an appreciation for her truck-driving stepfather. In all, her ear for realistic dialogue, her knack for easygoing and effecti ve detail, and her inherent humor makes her writing reliably excellent.
In the last few years, however, what we've seen in the U.S. from Jan Mark isn't realistic fiction but a rather different area of exploration in which she is no less excellent. The picture book The Tale of Tobias comes from the biblical Apocry pha, but Mark takes a different approach in employing Tobias' nameless dog as narrator of the story. Her style sparer but no less natural, she allows the dog's slightly jaundiced view to color the proceedings ("But no one asked me what I thought. I am o nly a dog") in a recounting that brings out the folkloric resonance that has made biblical stories echo down the centuries. Then this year saw her adaptation God's Story, a flavorful yet respectful retelling of the biblical story of the creation of humanity and the evolution of Judaism. Even religiously disinterested readers (speaking from experience) will find Mark's exploration of the saga compelling. This is a book understanding of God's point of view, with all those wayward creations that keep disappointing Him, but also affectionately supportive of mankind in its frustration with apparently arbitrary dicta that are just a little hard to live with. It's a challenge to make any story that's been around so long freshly understandable withou t resorting to gimmicks or me-first tricks of adaptation, but Mark infuses the proceedings with personality without personally taking over.
A writer that can capably work in such different genres is worthy of attention indeed. And who knows-maybe soon U.S. publishers will let us see a little more of the elephant.
--Deborah Stevenson, Associate Editor
This page was last updated on November 1, 1998.