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Book Review: Under the Spell of the Moon

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Under the Spell of the Moon is self-described as ‘Art for children from the world’s great illustrators.’ I would amend this title to ‘Art and Poetry…..Great illustrators and poets’. For this book is a visual feast in more ways than one, highlighting beloved artists and poets such as Quentin Blake, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Browne and Lisbeth Zwerger, as well as a huge number of talented international poets and illustrators I did not know before my children were given this book.

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What I like most about Under the Spell of the Moon, and what makes it so unique and special, is that all the poems are displayed in their original languages alongside their English translations. My children have laughed and laughed whilst I have tried to twist my mouth around Belgium syllables and Polish consonants. I know I do a terrible job of it, but of course it matters not a bit.

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It is hard to dispute the fact that, no matter how talented the translator, any work in translation loses a vital ‘something’. So simply by having those poems there on the page, in their original form, breathes a little of their lost life back into them and gives a necessary nod in the direction of how these words were first formed and conceived.

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There are languages in the book that are familiar with the odd word my children or I being able to translate, or to guess at least, for example German, Dutch, Swedish or Portuguese. Yet there are others still that are utterly unrecognisable to us as they spread out across the page in their beguiling, artistic forms: Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, Hindi, Chinese.

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The illustrations are simply stunning and I had great difficulty choosing just a few for this blog, but each and every one is lovingly paired with a poem in such a way that it is hard to imagine them ever not being together.

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For adults or children who love art or poetry, or both, this is a rare gem of a book. There is, like so many inspirational books, also an interesting story behind it. Jella Lepma, a Jewish journalist, was the founder of the International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY). After WW2, she was asked to return from her defeated homeland which she had fled to advise the occupation forces on the cultural and educational needs of women and children. She managed to persuade a number of bureaucrats that what was needed above all else was books, to help replenish the minds and souls of a war-battered nation.

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Jella Lepman’s dream is expressed eloquently in her autobiography, A Bridge of Children’s Books, in the form of a poem:

Stop telling us of war and destruction,

The children cry out

Across the boundaries

That adults establish.

And they press gloriously on

Into the uncharted future,

Creating again what the other

So mercilessly ruined.

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This wonderful book, Under the Spell of the Moon, is the visual evidence of Jella Lepman’s dream come true, one to be savoured and treasured by both child and adult alike.

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