Posts Tagged Dave McKean


phoenixSF Said and Dave McKean teamed up for the brilliant Varjak books about a cat that learns who he really is, and who his friends are; Phoenix is their science fiction creation – and, for a child of, say, ten, what a great entry to the genre it is!

Lucky the young protagonist chases his destiny across the Galaxy with the same  monomythical determination that Ged in A Wizard of Earthsea pursues the shadow creature. Like Varjak the book is, among many other things, about identity, in a world split along identity lines.

I recommend this short BBC radio talk by SF Said on the subject of identity. Also, his piece on identity and children’s books in the Guardian.


One of Dave McKean’s amazing astrolabe-inspired illustrations

In the book there are humans and aliens. But we find out that this division is not so simple. It’s an awareness we seem to need especially now, in our us-and-them times.

The last Reith Lectures – “Mistaken Identities” by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah –  had this theme too. He shows how our simple ideas of what creed, country, colour and culture are, are too simple. In Culture, he discusses the “Oriental-Occidental” divide that is obsessing the world at the moment.

We think of ourselves – us ‘Westerners’ as in some way heirs to classical culture. As Appiah says (pdf):

“More than six centuries later, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the great German philosopher, told the students of the high school he ran in Nuremberg, that, “The foundations of higher study must be and remain Greek literature in the first place, Roman in the second.”

Reading Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan recently, I became


Ashoka’s edicts – in Greek and Aramaic

aware of how much Alexander the Great had taken Greek culture east. I already knew that our only physical evidence for the maxims that were carved at the Greek temple of Delphi were in Afghanistan. But I learnt too that when the 3rd Century BC Indian ruler Ashoka posted his edicts in Pakistan and Afghanistan, they were in Greek and Aramaic for the Greek-speaking communities there.

(Of course, with the House of Knowledge in Baghdad, waves of Greek knowledge were reintroduced and accumulated eastwards as books on every subject in every language were translated into Arabic.)

Another thing from Appiah with a bearing on Varjak and Phoenix:

The stories we tell that connect Plato or Aristotle or Cicero or Saint Augustine to contemporary American culture have some truth in them, of course. There are self-conscious traditions of scholarship and argumentation. The delusion is to think that it suffices that we have access to these values, as if they’re tracks in a Spotify Playlist that we have never quite listened to.

If these thinkers are part of our Arnoldian culture, there’s no guarantee that what is best in them will continue to mean something to the children of those who now look back to them, any more than the centrality of Aristotle to Muslim thought for hundreds of years guarantees him an important place in Muslim cultures today.

Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them.

A journey of discovery is needed to discover our ‘own’ heritage; a ticket is not enough. Varjak has to learn the Way of Jalal. Lucky needs to find his father, and a lot else besides.



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Mouse Bird Snake Wolf



There are some brilliant stories of how things became – take Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories, Ted Hughes’ How the Whale Became.

Mouse Bird Snake Wolf, a collaboration between author David Almond and illustrator Dave McKean, is in this tradition. The gods have made the world that Sue, Harry and Little Ben live in. But they’re lazy; they’re up there in the clouds and they’re sleepy. The children can see that there are holes in creation, and sometimes they can see what might go in those holes.

mouse Mouse-Bird-Snake-WolfAll goes relatively well until Harry and Wolf start having wolfish thoughts:


wolf 2

I love the metaphorical muscle of this book. We live in such a world. A lot is created, but there are spaces left for us to create. Much of what we create is benign, but we have the power to create what is fearsome, destructive.


We’ve been reading it with the Year 4 classes, and getting the kids to respond to it imaginatively, and the quality of their responses has been good to see. The book is deep enough, resonant enough with what we face outside fiction, for there to be plenty to discuss. The myth is both deep and lighthearted, and the kids entered into it from the first page, filling in the gaps that it’s creators have left.

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Varjak Paw

“There are Seven Skills in the Way of Jalal,” whispered the Elder Paw.  “We know only three of them. Their names are these.  Slow-Time.  Moving Circles.  Shadow-Walking.”

SF Said‘s Varjak Paw is a tale of a pet cat who must grow up, learn to survive Outside, and learn the Seven Skills of his ancestor Jalal. He uses the skills, which he learns from Jalal in his dreams, to help his new street cat friends, Holly and Tam.

As usual David McKean’s illustrations are amazing, and complement the text brilliantly.

Varjak Paw 1

Varjak Paw 2

Varjak Paw 3

Varjak Paw 4

Varjak Paw 5




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Dave McKean

So, I’ve just seen Mirrormask. What made me watch it was that I know Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman from kids’ books they’ve made.

There’s The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish:

There’s The Wolves in the Walls:

And there’s Crazy Hair:

– all three with Neil Gaiman. There aren’t many illustrations for Gaiman’s Coraline, but McKean did these too. He also did the relatively few pictures for The Graveyard Book, but that deserves a post of its own.

Then, with David Almond there’s The Savage. This book is kind of perfect…

There’s a wildness, a savagery, a violence, about Almond’s writing. And McKean’s art complements it perfectly.

It’s one of Almond’s shorter books and a great introduction to his writing. It’s got all the lean rawness, the harshness and the kindness of his writing, but it can be read by a nine year old.

“There was a wild kid living in Burgess Woods.”


(More pictures here.)

I’ve just discovered there’s another book by this partnership which I’ll have to investigate – Slog’s Dad.

+ addendum

Just read a great blog post about Slog’s Dad – good to find someone who is as enthusiastic about David Almond and Dave McKean’s work as I am – and a lot more articulate about it too!

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I watched Mirrormask last night. Wonderful animation by Dave McKean. More than animation, direction and the creation of a whole host of wonderful phantasmagorical creatures, weird landscapes, layered dream sequences. Brilliant music by Iain Bellamy. Stephanie Leonidas is great as a the main character, Helena, a circus girl who, when her mother suddenly falls seriously ill, disappears into a fearsome Alice in Wonderland world to sort matters out.

Critics have said that the story is its weak point.  Other critics have said that it is too much an imitation of Labyrinth. (Remember Bowie as the Goblin King?) But I liked it. In fact it’s part of a whole sub-genre isn’t it: Girl disappears into Other World to solve this world problem. I think of Childe Rowland:


Burd Ellen round about the aisle

 To seek the ball is gone,

But long they waited, and longer still,

 And she came not back again.

Then there’s Miyazaki’s Spirited Away of course, where  Chihiro has to face all the challenges of the spirit bath-house to release her parents from their pig-form.

There must be lots of other examples. There’s also another subgenre involved – the swap story. Helena’s and the Princess of the Dark City swap worlds. Helena needs to find the mirrormask to get back to her own world. Dave McKean points out that this type of tale goes back to The Prince and The Pauper – it goes further back still to stories of Harun al-Rashid and The Desert Island in the Talmud.

Have a look at some of Mirrormask, here the beginning:

I love the circus music.

And some more, with its wonderfully eery Close To You:

Here’s Gaiman and McKean talking about their work on the film together:

McKean’s sketch for the giants

Really Useful Book

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