With the summer reading season in full swing and just when we had tired of this year’s Swedish crime wave, we were delighted when a friend sent us the new boxed set of the Penguin Books’ Boys’ Adventures series. These tales by Buchan, Stevenson, Burroughs, Doyle and others, with their smart and exuberant covers by Coralie Bickford-Smith (who is also behind Penguin’s elegant Clothbound Classics redesign) compose a vivid cross-section of the best of our childhood reading.
In art-directing these new covers, Bickford-Smith has taken on a hefty task. These are some of the best-dressed and beloved books in literature, known to readers not only by heart but at first glance. Who can forget N. C. Wyeth’s painted set of illustrations for ‘Treasure Island’, with its grim and square-jawed pirates and Jim Hawkins’ ultimatum in the rigging — One more step, Mr. Hands, and I’ll blow your brains out? How completely have the countless pulpy, bulging covers of the Tarzan novels and comics shaped the way we read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tale? Few people now may know the thousands of detailed engravings that appeared one hundred years ago in the Hetzel editions of Jules Verne (Around the World in 80 Days), but their intricate visual vocabulary survives in our imaginations in everything from Steampunk to the films of Hayao Miyazaki. In this respect the Penguin series is shrewdly designed: Bickford-Smith has managed to embrace the visual heritage of each of the ‘Boys’ Adventure’ books in turn, creating volumes that are at once fresh and familiar. We also love the way her use of color gives the books both a hint of contemporary whimsy and, side by side, a kaleidoscopic cohesion.
By no means should you choose just one of these — but if you need a place to start, let us suggest an old favorite: Erskine Childers’ novel of spies and intrigue in the wind-whipped dunes and shallows of the Baltic Sea: ‘The Riddle of the Sands’.