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September 16, 2011

New Books: The Iron Giant

I completely missed Ted Hughes's 1968 children's fable The Iron Giant in my own childhood; I don't know if it had fallen out of vogue in late-1970s New York, or if it simply hadn't made significant inroads in America yet at that point, or if it was just a random omission. But my first exposure to the story of the metal-consuming colossus who befriends a young English boy named Hogarth came when Pete Townshend wrote a musical based on it in the late ’80s. That adaptation in turn led, through the typical Hollywood twists and turns, to Brad Bird's loosely based animated version in 1999, which we discovered once we'd had kids of our own several years later.

But for some reason, despite these cues (it's always a pretty good sign when multiple  artists I admire express admiration for the same work of art), I'd never gone back to Hughes's original text. Apparently that discovery required this new edition, which features suitably expansive, wondrous illustrations by Laura Carlin; at any rate, I now can't believe I put it off so long. The Iron Giant (or, as it's known in its native U.K., The Iron Man, the change on our shores having been caused by the pre-existing Marvel Comics hero now portrayed by Robert Downey) is really an epic for children—Hughes has endowed it with the power of stories like those of Odysseus and Gilgamesh while keeping it simple and accessible to kids. His day job as a prominent poet is in full evidence; you have the sense that every word has been considered and then chosen. There's nothing quite like it in kid lit, to this day.

It’s also engrossing: Our six-year-old was riveted from the opening page, and even our three-year-old's short attention span was held in thrall. Some of that can surely be traced to their prior familiarity with the Brad Bird version—but that adaptation smooths out much of the grand strangeness of the original for modern movie audiences. Yet it’s these elements that aren't in the film—the entire space-bat-angel-dragon storyline, for example—that our boys find most compelling and fascinating.

Carlin's art is a large part of the spell, too; her renderings suit the otherworldliness of the text and the storytelling style perfectly. In particular, she does a remarkable job of capturing the book’s scale, managing to combine a big rough-hewn look with carefully considered details that fill out the background of the story.

It's a proper edition of a classic I'd never known, and I think it'll be beloved equally by those who are already fans and those like me, who didn't know it well previously. It now holds a place of honor on our shelf of children’s-book classics.

[Images: Whitney Webster]

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