The most magical picture books tell their story in images, as much as in words. Gus’s Garage, by Leo Timmers, is the best example of seamless storytelling I have seen recently, joining Timmers’ other wonderful books for early picture book readers.
Gus runs a garage, and sure he sells petrol, but what he really does is provide unique fixes for every possible situation he and his various animal drivers encounter. HHe reminded me a lot of my Uncle Jack, an engineer, who had a seemingly insurmountable ability to fix anything his friends brought him.
As Gus fixes problems, his pile of stuff gets smaller. My 5-year-old, Dan, caught on pretty quickly as to what was happening in the book, and was avid in trying to guess which unlikely object from Gus’s fix-it pile was going to be used to solve the drivers’ problems. He was particularly happy about predicting Miss P’s solution for her too-hot car: weld a fridge on top of her car, of course!
Timmers writes in Flemish, and to get the words just right for this book, not only did Gecko get Bill Nagelkerke to translate it; but they asked poet James Brown to adapt this translation to make it bounce along. The book is written in rhyming couplets in pairs, with the second pair as a refrain: ‘Let’s see, I have some bits and bobs. This goes with that. There. Just the job!’
I asked James a few questions about adapting this text, and his answers are below:
Picture books, poetry – same/same right? How closely *do* they relate?
Actually, there are connections. Being succinct, being able to work with rhyme and rhythm – both poetic skills that transfer well to children’s picture books.
In Leo’s pictures there are lots of small details that change gradually as the story develops.
Poets like particulars! I never tired of Leo’s pictures. In fact, I kept noticing more and more. They give you an overall picture of what’s going on very quickly, but then there are all those tiny details changing as the day passes. You really can look at them over and over.
I see Leo Timmers has admired your adaptation of Gus’s Garage – how did you find adapting a translation without understanding the original work? Do you think this gave you more or less freedom with language?
Well, I had a literal translation to steer by, and I looked closely at the language and could see that it rhymed and had a regular rhythm. Except with the refrain, I didn’t have too much freedom. The text had to agree with the images. The refrain was crucial. It had to be right because, well, it repeats, and it had to work for a US audience. Gecko Press gave me good advice – they said it’s got to rollick! So I kept that in my head. If the lines weren’t rollicking, they weren’t working.
Have you ever adapted a work – even in English – to a different form? Were there any similarities in this process?
I don’t think I have. I’ve done a few vague poetic adaptations – ‘Diary Extracts from Scott’s Voyage to Discover the West Pole’ parodies Scott’s diaries and Pooh Bear’s expedition to discover the North Pole. I’ve spent 10 years adapting some badly written museum labels into clear and occasionally engaging English.
What do you think that a well-adapted work, no matter the genre, can give us?
Well, it opens works up to new audiences. I love Yehuda Amichai’s poem ‘The Diameter of the Bomb’, but really I love Chana Bloch’s and Stephen Mitchell’s translation of it – I’d never have been able to read it in Hebrew. Wordsworth’s poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ – the daffodil poem – is possibly an adaptation of his sister Dorothy’s diary entry recording the same event. It depends on if he wrote it independently or used her diary to jog his memory. Her diary entry is good, but his poem is dazzling. Half of Shakespeare’s plays were adaptations of other plays.
Adaptations can show different points of view. Some are better than the original. Francis Coppola’s Dracula movie is a pretty good adaptation. Not sure about all those TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, though.
I know you were involved in the fantastic board book series that Te Papa Press put out a couple of years ago – what else is in the pipeline, Children’s books-wise from you? (or poetry-wise!)
The board books were fun to do. I’ve recently done a few poems for the School Journal and one for [Gecko Press’s upcoming] Annual. I’ve just made some space in my life to focus more on my own creative projects – like my overdue poetry manuscript. I love Edward Gorey – I’d love to do something like him. I’d love to write a children’s book. I need a publisher! I need an illustrator! I need to write something.
While you are all waiting for James’ next poetry collection, pick up Gus’s Garage and put it in your ‘most treasured’ collection of picture books. It’s there in ours, alongside The Magical Life of Mr Renny.
Review and interview by Sarah Forster
by Leo Timmers, translation by James Brown
Published by Gecko Press
PB ISBN: 9781776570928 (avail November)
HB ISBN: 9781776570935
Giveaway: Go to our Facebook page for a chance to win a hardback copy of Gus’s Garage, thanks to Gecko Press.