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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Circus and Other Stories (The)
by Samuil Marshak
Age Range: 6-8
The Circus and Other Stories contains four remarkable children’s books that were published in Russia during the 1920s – ‘The Circus’, ‘Ice Cream’, ‘Yesterday and Today’ and ‘How the Plane Made a Plane’. All are written in verse by Samuil Marshak with distinctive artwork by Vladimir Lebedev.
‘The Circus’ was the first collaboration between Marshak and Lebedev who were leading figures of a new movement founding a school of artists and writers known as the Leningrad School. The clever verse is complimented by the illustrations which appear as a series of circus posters with each page staged as a performance revealing a new act – clowns, acrobats and jugglers. The clear, sharp images in strong primary colours are placed on a black background.
‘This man, like a bird on the top of a tree,
Can perch on the spine of the admiralty!’
‘Ice Cream’ is a complete contrast with its playful nonsense verse. The protagonist is a greedy man who eats so much ice cream that there is no more left for anyone else and all the sellers in the town run out. The rotund, larger than life character fills the page and is portrayed dressed in a bow tie, bowler hat and cane, everything that represented one of the condemned classes in Russia at the time. Lebedev’s illustrations are a combination of fine coloured dots with the primary colours and perspective helping to enhance the funny verse.
`Hey, there, colleagues, say
What’s business like today?
A fat man’s bought my stock
And he’s gobbled up the lot!’
‘Yesterday and Today’ is a story about the most important changes in everyday life that children would have witnessed at the time. It shows a clever confrontation between the past and present. Lebedev uses symbolism to demonstrate this contrast. The existing world is shown in vibrant, colourful concise images while the contrasting world of yesterday is shown as vague and decrepit. Lebedev uses a variety of typefaces as visual objects, choosing a specific typographical look to illustrate the meaning; such as the page with writing from an ink pen, the paper covered with ugly ink spots, while on the opposite page there is a typewriter with neat typed text above the image. Another comparison is the image of a kerosene lamp versus the shiny new electric light bulb.
‘How the Plane made a Plane’ was created to introduce children to a profession. The artists wanted to show the traditions of a trade whilst turning it into an experience of play. Lebedev’s illustrations show tools in a very matter-of-fact way with the drawings looking like they are from a professional manual, but the amusing verse ensures that it will appeal to a young audience.
`”What causes you grizzle
In this matter?” asked the chisel’
The author/illustrator team was known in revolutionary Russia for their innovative new ways of creating children’s books. Marshak was fascinated by English nursery rhymes which he translated into Russian and in ‘The Circus and Other Stories’ he experimented with form and style for each of the four books.
This new translation into English by Stephen Capus has captured the witty verse of Marshak perfectly and together with the stunning Avant-garde illustrations of Lebedev it has made this a very special book that can be enjoyed by a new generation of readers. At the back of the book there is an afterword written by Olga Moeots of the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature in Moscow which provides some of the background to the creation of the stories.