THE IRON MAN by Ted Hughes, illustrated by Laura Carlin (Walker Books, 2010)
At a recent British Library public discussion on Ideology in Children’s Literature, editor, and now independent publisher, David Finkling raised the question as to whether it is right to make a distinction between books for children and adults.
His point was that this largely arbitrary separation is often nothing more than a marketing tool which ignores the fact that many titles can and should be enjoyed by all ages.
This might not apply to Peppa Pig publications but is most certainly the case for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, both of which were edited by Finkling.
Ted Hughes’ poetic creation The Iron Man has a message that isn’t confined to fledgling readers, nor has it anything in common with the Marvel comics’ superhero.
It is variously billed as a modern fairy tale, a science fiction novel and a children’s story. The edition I read is graced by beautiful illustrations by Laura Carlin for which she won a Victoria & Albert Museum award .
In Hughes’ story nobody knows where the giant metal man comes from and people assume that he is a malevolent creature that must be exterminated at all costs. When attempts to destroy him fail, a young boy named Hogarth finds a more humane solution by leading the giant to a scrap yard where his insatiable diet for metal objects can be met.
The final chapter has the iron man coming to rescue of the planet by winning a test of strength with an alien monster. This a “space-bat-angel-dragon” has landed on earth and covers the whole of Australia. It also has a global impact: “the shock of its landing rolled around the earth like an earthquake, spilling teacups in London, jolting pictures off walls in California, cracking statues off their pedestals in Russia”.
Again the solution doesn’t involve outright destruction as the being is effectively neutralised to the point that, instead of reaping terror, it ends up floating benevolently in the spheres producing space music which calms the world into abandoning weapon manufacturing.
While ostensibly an entertainment for children, Hughes’ message that the world needs more compassion and cleverness and less conflict make it a book that gives plenty of pleasure and food for thought for adult audiences too.