Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year/From the archives: Blair Lent

I've started and deleted this post half a dozen times. Do I do Seasons Greetings (predictably late, in my case) or start the new year with a dip into the archives. I'm itching to write about the great illustrator Blair Lent. If I was Otto I'd be jiggling on the spot in agitation, wailing, I can't decide. Can I do both? After all the new year is a time to look back, no?

The thing is, I can't lay claim to being overly familiar with Lent's work. I've never nursed a 'top 10 books for under 10s' list. I usually follow the monkey's lead and take it from there. But those that do write those lists (see The Age, last weekend) include Tikki Tikki Tembo, a "Chinese"*folk tale as retold by Arlene Mosel with illustrations by Blair Lent and published in that famous year, 1968, near the top. My copy, found on the dusty shelves of a South Australian op shop, bears the stamp of 'Surrey Downs Primary School' and is the Commonwealth edition from that year. I'd never heard of it. With Otto's Asia obsession fever-pitch, when I saw a sensei-like figure on the cover, I grabbed it. I would have paid $50, and not 50 cents. The story – the near drowning of two, not all that closely supervised children in the mountains of China – is simple enough. But how many stories are so upfront about parental favouritism? I'm not sure where it sits with Otto (though as the first born son, he doesn't react particularly nervously). I know I get a little thrill of excitement at the plain speaking way it voices this age-old taboo. Lucky there's a moral: If you bestow a long-winded name on your treasured child (longer than John, try Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo chari, chari ruchi-pip peri pembo) , they could drown in the well before you can recite it out loud to raise the alarm.

Lent's illustrations are masterful. He has range: the sweep and scope of a mountain village, contrasting textures of various natural materials, decorative detail in the wing of a butterfly, and a style that is folk and obeys the logic of fairytale, fanciful scaling of objects that reminds you, this is fiction and not documentary. On hot nights when sleep seems like a far off prospect, we read it together:

And he ran as fast as his old legs could carry him. Step over step, step over step he went into the well, picked up little Chang, and step over step, step over step brought him out of the well. He pumped the water out of him, and pushed the air into him, and pumped the water out of him, and pushed the air into him and soon Chang was just as good as ever.

* Most likely Japanese, according to the encyclopedia, though possibly from Racism. There's something a bit paternalistically mocking about the tone.

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