Animal Farm was the book that turned me – as a reader – from child into adult. I can remember vividly the intensity I felt when I realised what was really going on in the story; it made me think about books completely differently. Here was bitterness, anger, sadness, and all manner of horrors laid out in words strained to a degree that I had never known before.
Ralph Steadman’s illustrated version of the novel was one which I remember being given shortly after my first reading. I pored over the ink-as-blood spattered illustrations, relishing in the horrible violence of the style and its apposite connection to Orwell’s own message. Now, some thirty years after this comes Chris Mould’s take on this extraordinary book.
Straight off, I need to say that I love the idea of illustrated books for older readers (so this was a much-anticipated book for me!) and specifically I love the pictures and I love the concept of this new edition. But I love Orwell’s novel too, whether it has pictures or not, so I was intent in preparing this review to explore the connectivity of Orwell and Mould – words and pictures – very carefully
To begin then, Mould’s cover shows us Napoleon with his trotters crossed moodily across a paunchy belly, staring out malevolently at us whilst tiny farm animals in silhouette hurl themselves towards a precipice formed by the pig’s ear (actually and metaphorically appropriate!). The image is striking and on closer inspection, quite strange – there’s something not okay about this front cover: what’s the story? The title is smeared stickily across the top. Paint? Mud? Something even more ‘unmentionable’ maybe?! Already young people picking up this book should be at once – quite rightly – repelled and intrigued: Charlotte’s Web this ain’t!
The small ‘V’-sign on the cover formed by the print of a pig’s trotter repeats itself defiantly all across the endpapers – not only is this book going to be all about the pigs, they’re triumphantly ‘giving us the trotter’, as it were, from the off! A faint pair of chicken-footprints then leads us into the story, their weak spindliness a distinct and telling contrast to the porcine bombast of the cover and endpapers.
Then the story starts proper. Look at the animals’ eyes! Windows of the soul, all of them (except, notably, the all-too-easily duped chickens) are drawn with baleful tiredness, sagging with world and work-weariness. What of those pigs-in-charge? Well, they share from the very start the very same caterpillar-thick bushy eyebrows of their human counterparts, brows knitted in plotting. And elsewhere suspicion is rife – not only Benjamin but Muriel and a few others are often shown with eyes tellingly askance, clocking what’s really going on, the creatures’ exhaustion taking on a more nihilistic resignation.
There was no mistaking Steadman’s intention in the earlier book: his pictures took you by the throat and squeezed. But this edition is more subtle: Mould has a different kind of edge to his vision of the Farm, not so ironically political; it removes that and fills the pages with a macabre theatricality, a graceful terror, brooding and ominous. It’s Stalin’s Russia as depicted by Prokofiev, rather than Shostakovich, perhaps.
Mould’s stance towards the story’s intentions works well and his illustrations are well suited; I like the darkly mocking, sly style. My only concern, small but important to consider, is that the pictures perhaps make the book seem more appealing for the younger reader at the upper end of primary school – would they (or even a primary teacher) potentially pick this up and possibly see those wide-eyed chickens laying their eggs as just ‘a bit silly’? Are the pigs just ‘a bit naughty’ in their grumpiness? This is explicitly not a book for primary-school children. It’s a personal bugbear of mine that books that should be for an older audience sometimes (maybe more often than we think) find themselves in the hands of children who are too young to properly connect with the text because of marketing, association (think of the stark differences between Raymond Briggs’ charming Snowman and his terrifying When the Wind Blows) or even less-than-careful selection on the part of the grown-ups. No, although there’s nothing majorly inappropriate in Orwell’s text itself (the horrifically bloody and upsetting massacre of the animals scene aside), the message of the words and illustrations are here designed to say something far deeper to the older reader.
Animal Farm is a fable that only makes sense and reveals its terrifying truth when the reader is complicit with the likes of the cynical old donkey and clever goat. So don’t read it too early! But when the young people you know are properly ready for its bitter narrative then it would be Chris Mould’s eloquent and crafty version that I’d heartily recommend that they get hold of as an introduction to Orwell’s world.
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