It’s Spring and our thoughts (at BfK anyway!) turn to picture books. This year’s vast output includes titles from innovative newcomers as well as household names. But how good are they? Elaine Moss investigates.
In Wanda Gág’s classic 1929 picture book Millions of Cats (still available on Amazon.com) an old man and an old woman who long for a cat to keep them company find themselves, because of the old man’s inability to choose, besieged by ‘hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats’ all clamouring for their attention. On the receiving end of the season’s unbelievably enormous output of picture books, I felt similarly overwhelmed – as, indeed, do many parents and teachers when faced with stocking their children’s bookshelves or libraries. The old man and the old woman sensibly let the cats fight it out amongst themselves, so I decided to do the same with the picture books, having first adopted a single principle.
The yardstick I would use to measure the worth of the mountain of submissions was the one Kurt Maschler and I had formulated for the Maschler Award, in our capacity as founder judges, way back in 1983: I would look for ‘works of imagination in the children’s field in which text and illustration are of excellence and so presented that each enhances yet balances the other’. I am sad to say that nine-tenths of the submissions for four to eight year olds (books for toddlers will be covered in July) instantly disqualified themselves – but that still left plenty from which to choose a short list of possible recommendations.
Folk tales retold
Quite the most attractive and imaginative of the new retellings of folk tales is Puss in Boots in a version proclaimed on the title page to be ‘Written by Mr. Philip Pullman and Illustrated by Mr. Ian Beck, Starring Puss himself, and featuring One Ogre…A Beautiful Princess…And of course Jacques, the Hero’. This most generous and handsome book takes as its inspiration the vigour of the early chap book versions. But using a large format and colour printing (in the manner of Walter Crane) and a variety of page design that includes strip cartoon, bubble talk and cut-outs, it is a masquerade as cheeky as the conniving Monsieur Puss himself. Philip ( Northern Lights) Pullman writes a racy, vivid text which Ian Beck illustrates with verve in brilliantly designed, restless pages. A delight.
Sedate, by comparison, and soft in texture, is the retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen story The Ugly Duckling by Kevin Crossley-Holland (using an abridged form of the Bodley Head translation) with Japanese-style illustrations by Meilo So. Crossley-Holland has given today’s children, so often short-changed with only half the story in picture book versions, all the features of Andersen’s bitter tale of rejection that spread far beyond the duck family into the wider world, and echoed so closely his own personal tragedy. A slight jerkiness in the text over the first few pages, probably occasioned by the necessity to align it with the pictures, gives way fairly soon to a smooth rendering of this compelling story, one that never fails to touch the hearts of readers. Meilo So’s stencil-style watercolours of meadow, pond, farmyard, farmhouse and their inhabitants can be as aggressive as, more often, they are lyrical.
Metamorphosis seems to be in the air this season; not only does the Ugly Duckling (once again, above) become a Swan, but Lawrence David and Delphine Durand’s Beetle Boy actually acknowledges its debt to Kafka on the title page! ‘Gregory Sampson woke one morning to discover that he had become a giant beetle,’ this story begins. How to dress for school? What to eat? How to alert his parents, the bus driver, his teacher to his dilemma when all of them, and even his friends (except his best friend) are too busy to notice? With six legs he can easily work out 3 x 2 by counting on them (‘Not fair!’ says his friend); and with six legs and two antennae it is certainly simpler to score goals at soccer. But Gregory is desperate for human recognition of his very personal problem – and that only comes when the family can’t find him at supper time because he is crawling around on the ceiling. Lawrence David’s witty text is mirrored in Delphine Durand’s clear, bright, absurd pictures that will repay a great deal of attention. Akin to Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey’s The Shrinking of Treehorn (1975) with its unforgettable teacherly response, ‘We don’t shrink in this class!’, Beetle Boy is also sure to be a winner.
A double identity crisis presents itself in Satoshi Kitamura’s Me and My Cat? In this story of mistaken bewitchment Nicholas becomes his cat Leonardo and leads a cat’s life for a day, whilst Leonardo the cat takes the shape of Nicholas and is dragged unwillingly to school. The fun, as well as the perils of Nicholas living a cat’s life are joyously pictured in Kitamura’s lively, rectangular, odd-angle, jumping-about illustrations; but when Leonardo in the shape of a boy comes home through the cat-flap Kitamura uses a series of hilarious vignettes to show a boy-in-shape behaving like a cat-in-practice: ravelling up balls of wool, sharpening his ‘claws’ on the cupboard, sitting in the cat tray! All ends happily with the witch who started the confusion confessing that she had made a mistake – she had really meant to cast her spell on Nicholas’s teacher who is seen in the last picture squatting on the table cat-like in front of a mystified class. Enormous fun, demanding rapt attention.
Now for three picture books that look fear in the face: in Noko and the Night Monster Fiona Moodie creates a timeless African animal fable, with domestic overtones, to show how fear can be overcome by courage and the call of friendship. The porcupine and the aardvark share a house, the porcupine acting as parent to the aardvark who has to be read to sleep each night because of his fear of the Night Monster. Porcupine, fed up with endlessly reading aloud the wool prices from the ‘Farmer’s Weekly’ in order to send aardvark to sleep, decides this must stop; so he elicits the help of his neighbours – leopard, pangolin, warthog and hyena – to form a composite monster. At full moon ‘the monster’ appears from behind some rocks and in answer to the porcupine’s cry for help, the trembling aardvark braves the dark and comes to the rescue. Beating the ‘night monster’ into its separate pieces – he finds he is no longer afraid. Fiona Moodie’s endearing pictures of the animals are preceded by endpaper maps showing where each of them has its home.
Less subtle, but with its own message well conveyed is Frieda Wishinsky and Neal Layton’s Nothing Scares Us. Lucy and Lenny boast that they are the Fearless Two – and in their games pirates and monsters are despatched with aplomb. But Lucy discovers that she is scared of Lenny’s favourite TV programme called ‘Creature’ which haunts her dreams. Can she admit this to Lenny? Bravely she watches the next instalment of the dreaded programme, only to discover half way through that Lenny has climbed onto the back of the sofa to avoid – a spider! Purposely ugly, large, child-like pictures accompany a suitably prosaic text. What is important here is the message: don’t be afraid to be afraid.
Lauren Child’s Beware of the Storybook Wolves is a far more sophisticated offering which depends heavily on intertext: children who are not steeped in fairy tale will find it hard to follow Herb’s nightmare in which the wolves and witches and bad fairies of the storybooks his mother reads to him, are finally fought off by a fairy godmother. There is real terror here, most of all in the two boy-hungry braggart wolves (who are also stupid, but nonetheless threatening). Large pages of quick-change design suggest the surreal quality of a dream which can also yield its humorous moments: there is one double spread, for instance, where the fairy godmother mistakenly turns the smaller, one-eyed wolf into a princess so we see him dressed in a ball gown whilst, on the next page, Cinderella is still washing the dishes. The curlicue fairies finally outwit the spiky wolves, as they do in most traditional tales, but Herb’s demand that his mother remove the book of fairytales from his bedroom when she says good-night seems not unreasonable.
Death is the wolf in all our lives but some writers and illustrators for children choose not to employ a metaphor. One of these is the Nigerian writer and photographer Ifeoma Onyefulu. In Saying Goodbye she uses the words of her young son Ikenna who asked many questions about the death of his great-grandmother (known as Mama Nkwelle because she was the wisewoman of the village) and the funeral customs and ceremonies in which he was so proud to take his place. Of course parting is sad and the death of an elder sparks off many reminiscences, but the atmosphere generated by the youthful text and the busy ceremonial photographs in Onyefulu’s Saying Goodbye is one of joyful participation in a community rite.
More oblique is Simon Puttock and Alison Jay’s A Ladder to the Stars, a stunningly beautiful and thoughtful picture book about one human life and its connexion with the universe. This may sound grandiose but the magic of the book is in its simplicity. On her seventh birthday night a little girl wishes upon a star that she could ‘climb right up into the sky and dance along with it’. The star begins to show off, telling the by now curious moon of the little girl’s wish. The moon ‘grew round and full pondering the matter, then wasted away to a splinter worrying about what to do’ before telling the sun, ‘for the sun is also a star and loves all things that love to dance’. The sun, the moon, the clouds and the weather meet and decide to send a seed to earth that will grow into a very tall tree. Lying in her bed at the age of a hundred and seven the ‘little girl’, now an old woman, is disturbed by the light from a very bright star inviting her to come outside and climb the tree. ‘Are you crazy?…I am too old and it is too late now’… ‘It is never too late,’ said the star. ‘Why, one hundred years are nothing and no time. To a star they are light and quick like seeds in the wind. You are still a little girl to us and we are waiting for you. Please come.’ Pushing her way through the ‘satin skin of the sky’ the old woman dances with her star – at last. To say that Alison Jay’s illustrations perfectly complement Simon Puttock’s elegant text is to place her instantly among the foremost picture book artists of our time. Whether it depicts a zodiacal meeting of the natural forces of the universe sitting round a cloud in the deepest blue, or, more prosaically, the old lady lying in bed disturbed by the bright ray of light from her star, each opening is a joy to behold.
Colin Thompson in Falling Angels shows how complex and fantastical the same idea can become. This extraordinary work is about flying as well as dying, about keeping as well as about letting go, about seeing the world with one’s heart as well as with one’s eyes. Sally makes up ‘silly stories’ about flying to Africa or the Antarctic to bring back exotic gifts for her grandmother. This ability to ‘fly’ she shares with her grandmother who lies in bed nearing the end of her life. Some of the spreads in this book are fresh and uncluttered – as when Sally visits the desert or the Polar wastes – but many are crammed full of tiny sections spilling over into one another and harbouring all manner of natural and spooky objects. There is a weirdness here both of subject matter and of perspective but, whether one warms to it or not, what cannot be in doubt is this artist’s extraordinary graphic skill.
David Pelham’s graphic skill is legendary: he was one of the first designers to work in the modern paper-engineering field (with Jonathan Miller on the barrier breaking Human Body) and here he is again with A Piece of Cake. This mouth-watering wedge-shaped offering tells the story, in humorous, often ingenious verse of a family of Housemice who are invited to the Churchmouse children’s party: ‘The Postmouse said, “Remember that/ Those Churchmice tend to be/ Considerably less fortunate/ Than mice like you and me”’. So, finding a slice of chocolate cake under a sitting room chair, the Housemice set out with it as a gift, but at each stage of the long pop-up journey, for various good reasons the Piece of Cake gets smaller and smaller and smaller. However Grandma Churchmouse saves the day: ‘For she had baked a huge cheesecake/ The vicar, on his knees,/ His faith restored, cried, “Praise the Lord!/ A cake made out of cheese!”’ And there, from the last opening, rise up Churchmice and Housemice in party gear, the thanksgiving vicar and beside him Grandma Churchmouse cutting joyfully into the cheescake. A Piece of Cake is no ordinary pop-up since, unlike most of its family, the yardstick of ‘balance of text and illustration, each being of excellence and enhancing the other’ can be confidently applied. Consume it with care!
And after the mice come the cat, the dog, the monkeys, the swan and the pigeons: Liz Graham-Yooll’s Timothy Tib is an excuse for a cat-loving artist to paint a tabby sleeping, stretching, stalking, prowling in full-colour full-page pictures that will be every feline-lover’s delight. Opposite each picture there is a verse ‘At night no longer sweet and mild,/ he’s like a tiger, fierce and wild.’ with a refrain – Timothy Tib is a jungle cat that rings the changes opening by opening as the cat’s mood varies, and offers the artist the chance to insert a delicate line drawing below the text.
Michael Foreman’s Saving Sinbad purports to be written by the heroic, nameless dog who guards over his master and is with him whilst he is repairing the church tower in a seaside town. When the lifeboat is called out the dog watches the daring rescue, then notices that Sinbad, a smaller dog, is struggling helplessly in the towering waves. With great courage he dashes over the slippery rocks, jumps in the sea and brings Sinbad to land. Michael Foreman’s watercolours of seascape, church, and ‘the barber, the barman, the butcher’s boy and bridegroom’ rushing into their yellow jackets to become lifeboatmen have all the intimacy and character of small town life. A conventional, homely picture book, this, and one that the RNLI could perhaps adopt as a fundraiser.
Is it just because the setting is African that Emma Chichester Clark’s new picture book No More Kissing! begins to look like the Jean de Brunhoff ‘Barbar’ series? Maybe it was the two giant elephants kissing their minute baby jumbo that put me in mind of the master. Children who hate being kissed by all their older relatives will sympathise with the little monkey here who hates all the kissing that goes on and tries to prevent the grown-up monkeys (dressed like humans) from kissing the new baby in the family: ‘“STOP!” I shouted. “Can’t you see he doesn’t like it?”’ – but Grandma Monkey is canny. “Perhaps you’d like to hold him?” she says. The baby goes on screaming whatever his big brother does to entertain him – until secretly he gives the baby – a kiss. “It was lucky no one was looking.” There is humour here as well as delight in the elegant monkeys – Chichester Clark in a new and rewarding vein.
There was a time when all picture books were at least 32 pages long and offered a good read as well as plenty of illustration to sustain the listener. For various economic reasons, as well as the perceived reduction of concentration-span in a generation reared on quick-frame television, their length is now often reduced to 28 pages or even less. But The Silver Swan by Michael Morpurgo and Christian Birmingham bravely eschews modern practice and the result is a long and enthralling nature story combined with large soft pastel illustrations – a fulfilling experience rare in today’s climate. The story, told by the boy, is of his passion for a swan that has made her home on a lake near his farm. He befriends her, carefully, and watches when a cob appears and the two swans make a nest together and rear their cygnets. In the woods near the lake a vixen, hungry in the cold winter, is trying to rear her family and the boy realises, before the fatal encounter between his swan and the vixen, that both have a right to live. His swan is mortally wounded before the cob can come to the rescue, but the boy traces her corpse into the woods and retrieves a feather, watches over her family and sees with pleasure the cob mate again. The story is told by Morpurgo with commendable directness and is illustrated by Birmingham in soft focus large pictures, often close-ups of boy and swan, that one would gladly hang on one’s wall.
It is good to see Jeannie Baker, collage-artist extraordinary, making a reappearance with Home in the Sky. In the foreword she explains the genesis of her story and in an afterword she tells older readers about her painstaking technique (she took two years to make the pictures) and about the difference between domestic and feral pigeons. Light, the homing pigeon at the centre of her story, strays onto the New York subway system and is taken home by a boy whose mother persuades him to release Light so that he may fly back to his owner, a rooftop dweller called Mike. Scraps of material, feathers, leaves, wood, hair and newsprint have been magically transformed into a most memorable picture book.
Elaine Moss is a frequent contributor to Signal magazine and was for ten years the compiler of the annual Children’s Books of the Year guide. She was a founder judge of the Kurt Maschler Award and won the Eleanor Farjeon Award for distinguished services to children’s literature.
Details of books discussed
Puss in Boots, Philip Pullman, ill. Ian Beck, Doubleday, 0 385 41032 8, £10.99
The Ugly Duckling, Kevin Crossley-Holland, ill. Meilo So, Orion, 1 85881 838 9, £9.99
Beetle Boy, Lawrence David, ill. Delphine Durand, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 5105 7, £9.99
Me and My Cat?, Satoshi Kitamura, Andersen, 0 86264 925 0, £9.99
Noko and the Night Monster, Fiona Moodie, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1694 0, £10.99
Nothing Scares Us, Frieda Wishinsky, ill. Neal Layton, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4679 7, £9.99
Beware of the Storybook Wolves, Lauren Child, Hodder, 0 340 77915 2, £9.99
Saying Goodbye, Ifeoma Onyefulu, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1700 9, £10.99
A Ladder to the Stars, Simon Puttock, ill. Alison Jay, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1575 8, £10.99
Falling Angels, Colin Thompson, Hutchinson, 0 09 176817 9, £9.99
A Piece of Cake, David Pelham, Jonathan Cape, 0 224 04669 1, £8.99
Timothy Tib, Liz Graham-Yooll, Ragged Bears, 1 85714 207 1, £8.99
Saving Sinbad, Michael Foreman, Andersen, 1 84270 008 1, £9.99
No More Kissing!, Emma Chichester Clark, Andersen, 0 86264 598 0, £9.99
The Silver Swan, Michael Morpurgo, ill. Christian Birmingham, Doubleday, 0 385 41022 0, £10.99
Home in the Sky, Jeannie Baker, Walker, 0 7445 7585 0, £9.99