Not the most obvious subject when considering a picture book for children but, yes, it happened – a book for juveniles all about Joseph Carey Merrick, The Elephant Man. First published by Allison & Busby in 1983, the book is written by Michael Howell and Peter Ford and is illustrated by Robert Geary.
The early 1980s were a busy time for Merrick, especially considering he had died in 1890. In the wake of Ashley Montagu’s ‘The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity’, published in 1972 and the 1977 stage play by Bernard Pomerance, there had been a rediscovery of Merrick’s remarkable life, culminating in two particularly pivotal releases – Howell and Ford’s ‘The True Story of the Elephant Man‘ (1980) and David Lynch’s acclaimed film, also from that year. Howell and Ford’s book was essential, the first truly objective look at Merrick and his life and utilising resources beyond Frederick Treves’ (Merrick’s doctor) memoirs, which had been revealed to contain numerous errors, not least getting his name incorrect (‘John’ instead of ‘Joseph’). The film perpetuated the naming error, plus some other debatable ‘facts’ such as the vilification of one of Merrick’s exhibitors, Tom Norman, though it brought worldwide attention to the man.
The picture book uses Howell and Ford’s book as its base (easy as it’s the same publisher), adapting it so that it is both significantly shorter (64 pages) and the language is more appropriate for a young audience, the narrative absolutely rattling along. It is remarkably gloomy, though, not really holding back on the cruelty and torment Merrick faces, with even the final line being heart-wrenching. “Good for them”, you might well say, and indeed, it’s a brilliant lesson to be learned in humility, understanding and compassion…but it’s also quite frightening and depressing.
Being a book for children, one of the most obvious points of sale is the images. Surprisingly evocative of a bygone age, with an almost impressionistic approach to the watercolour paintings, the artwork is by Robert Geary. Geary was born in Battersea, London, in 1931 and worked as a freelance cartoonist and illustrator for the likes of ‘The Oldie’, ‘Punch’ and ‘The Radio Times’, as well as contributing to numerous children’s books. There is no shirking the grotesqueness of Merrick’s appearance in the images and the book is packed full of immersive Victorian scenes throughout, with the text nicely wrapped around them. Hugely recommended, you can pick it up on Amazon or for mere pennies if you shop around online