Chris Powling chooses from the season’s new picture books.
Spring is sprung, the grass is riz… and if you’re wondering where the boidies is maybe you should switch to books. As always, they’re here in plenty. That ‘ish’ in the title reflects difficulty in picking a mere score, not doubts about the quality of the batch. Most of them are so easy on the eye, the hard bit for a reviewer is to pay appropriate attention – especially when the new offering comes in a familiar form, from familiar talents. For example…
Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski, Heinemann, 0 434 95658 9, £4.95
An established team in Carle country, as Meg and Mog between them concoct a caterpillar then coax it towards butterflyness. It’s the thirteenth in this wonderful series and that’s bound to be unlucky for some … competitors, for instance. Words and images are as zippy as ever and so well integrated it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. Do Nicoll and Pienkowski still meet at the Membury service station on the M4 to discuss these de-luxe, designerly comic-strips? If so, it’s about time they re-named the station in their honour.
Lucy and Tom’s 123
Shirley Hughes, Gollancz, 0 575 03889 6, £4.95
Again, what’s-only-to-be-expected presented so freshly it takes a while to persuade yourself you won’t be smudging the ink as you turn over the pages. Shirley Hughes is our foremost chronicler of the life of ordinary households and every detail here counts-which is what she’s after – from ornamental ducks on the mantelpiece to the marking of family heights on Mum and Dad’s bedroom wall. There’s much opportunity for Maths work but so cunningly crafted into the storyline it comes across as maths-play. Who needs Nuffield or Harold Fletcher? Clearly the Lucy and Tom show will run and run … all the way to GCSE if I had my way.
The Guinea Pig ABC
Kate Duke, Methuen, 0 416 97310 8, £5.95
ABCs abound so it’s not easy for them to make an impact. The origins of this one are transatlantic but only for a couple of spreads is this significant – apart from the energy that is. There’s an admirable oomph about this tour through twenty-six page-size letters, along with a pleasing inventiveness and wit. Guinea-pigs aren’t the most obvious creatures to animate adjectives like ‘bouncy’ and ‘vain’ but it says a great deal for Kate Duke’s ingenuity and craftsmanship that these chunky, likeable creatures seem natural comedians by the end.
Our Puppy’s Holiday
Ruth Brown, Andersen, 0 86264 145 4, £4.95
If you think Eric Hill has cornered the puppy market, try this. The un-named pet is as far removed from Spot as it’s possible to be, jumping as it does from an easel rather than a drawing-board. Ruth Brown exploits her painterly talents to the full and what we get is not just a wonderful sense of pup, but also of place and time. Note the steady, frame-by-frame shift in the background light, for instance, as the day goes on. Too subtle for this age-group? Not at all, when the dog’s activities are so securely foregrounded in a snapshot realism that goes beyond any camera. It’s hard to tell which gets the bigger boost from this marvellous book – out-of-season holidays or out-of-pedigree pups. Don’t miss it.
The Boy with Two Shadows
Margaret Mahy and Jenny Williams, Dent, 0 460 06241 1, £5.95
The tale, a quirky variant on a problem Peter Pan would recognise instantly, has been around some time. So, in a way, has Jenny Williams’ approach to illustration which is bold, bright and totally without pretension – a little like Celia Berridge’s before she joined the Post Office. Postman Pat can’t match the energy and detail here, though, or the use of colour which certainly makes more accessible the weird, witchy Mahy storyline. It’s a style that’s immensely popular with children and shouldn’t be underestimated on that account. Just bread-and-butter stuff, do I hear an objection’? More jam-tart and chocolate-cake, in my view.
Mind you, there are reissues and reissues. Some come at you with a disorientating shock – like encountering an old friend who has no right to look so young. Take The Winter Bear, for example, reissued by Collins (0 00 195869 0, £4.95) for the fifth time since 1974. Everything about it, from end-paper to end-paper, not excluding that stunning cover, is a perfect matching of word, image and picture-book design. The sharpness of Erik Blegvad’s line and textures and the layout of the pages which draws attention, but not too much attention, to Ruth Craft’s spritely verse, are all the more thrilling for the bygone pleasure they invest with new radiance. It’s a hard act to follow.
In fact only another classic, such as V. H. Drummond’s Phewtus the Squirrel, can possibly do it. This new edition, from Walker Books (0 7445 0689 1, £6.95), may offend some purists precisely for its new dimension – the colour it brings to the original black-and-white, pre-war illustrations. If so, shame on the purists. There’s no loss in wit and spontaneity and a distinct gain in the substance it brings to a talent that points backwards to Bickerstaff and forwards to, Blake. The end-papers alone justify the enterprise, with Phewtus careering through the park as fully a squirrel as the breeziness of the text demands: maximum effect achieved with the minimum of fuss.
In comparison, the art of Maurice Sendak seems almost monumental especially when presented at least twice the size of most paperbacks as he is in Posters by Maurice Sendak from Bodley Head (0 370 31038 1, £12.95). No, it’s not strictly a picture-book nor for a child audience in particular. It’s a wonderful reminder, though, of the sheer potency and inventiveness of one of the major modern illustrators – also, despite that instantly recognisable style, of his versatility. Whether he’s billing book-weeks, museums, exhibitions, opera or whatever, you can’t help feeling Sendak’s advertising was the most enduring aspect of the event. My only quibble with this glorious compendium is the time it takes to look up a particular poster since the contents list is numbered but the pages aren’t – which means total exposure to distraction as you leaf through. Still, there are worse ways to spend your time.
What Happened to the Picnic?
Gillian McClure, Andre Deutsch, 0 233 96069 5, £5.95
As we saw in Tog the Ribber, Gillian McClure also has a style of her own. Though here she provides her own text, there’s more than a touch of Tog-ish horror about this tale of an apparently self-consuming picnic and the distinctly un-Teddy-like bears who lose track of it. What makes her work so arresting is the tension between the hard forms of her foreground detail and the soft forms of the wispy, delicate background into which it fades … arresting, but also nerve-jangling. Is she quite sure of the age-group she’s pitching at?
Our House on the Hill
Philippe Dupasquier, Andersen, 0 86264 167 5, £5.95
Philippe Dupasquier, on the other hand, knows exactly what he’s after. There are no words, nor are any needed. Using a standard spread-and-a-half plus supporting frames, he shows the same landscape a dozen times over, from January to December. Since the differences in each case are largely dependent on the weather, this is a high-risk enterprise. Extraordinarily, it works. For the reader willing to persevere, it’s a deft and ingenious account combining the cycle of the seasons with twelve months’ worth of family ritual, lovingly observed. Is it Dupasquier’s own year we’re being invited to share? Hints and jokes that this may be the case make this virtuoso stuff.
The Trouble with Gran
Babette Cole, Heinemann, 0 434 93296 5, £5.50
Babette Cole is in top form, too. Gruesome grannies are nothing new these days but this one achieves lift-off, quite literally, by being so outrageous she out-distances the opposition – and incipient ageism – with an alien’s eye-view that up-ends every possible geriatric cliche from bloomers to the old folk’s outing. Does mischief like this run in the family, though? Are Mum, Dad and the kid simply lying low till they’re old enough to zap us with similar comic, and cosmic, capers? For our own peace of mind, we must be told.
Tony Ross, Andersen, 0 86264 161 6, £4.95
According to the blurb, Tony Ross first heard this folk-tale from an Australian storyteller which may account for it being both like, and unlike, our indigenous version. Bad, Bad Wolf turns out to be the dumb cluck as Mother Hen dupes him into spring-cleaning her house … distracting him from making a meal of her by making that time-honoured meal for him. The exuberant, throwaway style of both text and pictures won’t be to everybody’s taste, perhaps, but went down very nicely with me even if the ending does come as a bit of a hiccup.
The Sad Story of Veronica Who Played the Violin
David McKee, Andersen, 0 86264 169 1, £4.95
In contrast, the success of Veronica depends on the ending – as blatant a violation of readerly expectation as I’ve come across in a long time. It had me laughing out loud. So will most readers, I guess, as they follow the career of a little girl with a musical talent so tear-jerking, it can charm the most savage of beasts. That is, until … well, try it for yourself. As with all the best McKee, every stroke – verbal or visual – is a masterly celebration of the droll.
Peter and the Wolf
Reg Cartwright and Selena Hastings, Walker, 0 7445 0519 4, £6.95
Another Peter and the Wolf, do I hear you groan? It says a lot for this version that it lifts itself well above the contempt we reserve for the overly-familiar while staying true to the mood and atmosphere of the original folk-tale. Selena Hastings’ dignified re-telling is matched perfectly by Reg Cartwright’s marvellous vignettes and full-plates. Some present a well-known scene from an unexpected angle, others are more traditional but always slyly humorous … and every one could have come only from Cartwright. Though I say it and shouldn’t, that Mother Goose panel which made him 1980’s most exciting newcomer to illustration certainly knew what it was doing. He’s never been better.
Gammer Gurton’s Needle
Charlotte Voake and David Lloyd, Walker, 0 7445 0640 9, £7.95
Neither has Charlotte Voake. At first sight the delicacy of her line and wash seems wrong for a rumbustious comedy which first knocked `em in the aisles four centuries ago – a blend of farce and pantomime David Lloyd exploits to the full. Yet the beautifully paced and expertly laid out illustrations are just as impressive in their ability to suggest a particular period yet still be smartly up-to-date. Something of a tour-de-force, this.
Half a Moon and One Whole Star
Jerry Pinkney and Crescent Dragonwagon, Bodley Head, 0 370 31081 0, £5.95
…And so is this, Jerry Pinkney’s artwork is superb. Spread after spread is lush, inventive, beautifully textured and so haunting as we tour the after-dark world of a sleeping child it compensates completely for the accompanying verse. This isn’t totally bad – just too close for comfort to the sort of thing you’d expect from someone who’s opted for a name like Crescent Dragonwagon.
A New Coat for Anna
Anita Lobel and Harriet Ziefert, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 286 9, £6.25
Astonishingly, the world of post-war austerity turns out to be just as haunting. Anna’s mother scrimps, scrapes and swaps her way to the coat her daughter badly needs, every stage in the process deftly caught by a penny-plain text plus pictures well short of tuppence-coloured, yet with such a warmth and bloom about them they transform the sombre setting. Living proof that you don’t have to hitch your Dragonwagon to a star, or even half a moon, to make magic.
James Stevenson, Gollancz, 0 575 03974 4, £5.75
Posy Simmonds, Cape, 0 224 02448 5, £5.95
Two of a kind, this pair. Both come from well-known cartoonists for adults: Stevenson is a regular contributor to the New Yorker and our own Posy Simmonds enlivens each Monday for Guardian readers. The difference is that she’s making her debut with children while he’s an established favourite. Does it show? Not much. In No Friends, Stevenson spans the gap between child interest and adult sophistication with his usual device of the faux-naif fogey, Grandpa, who reconciles Mary Ann and Louie to their new neighbourhood with a splendidly improbable tale of how he coped as a child in similar circumstances. It’s a delight from start to finish. So is Fred, in which Sophie and Nick discover the true status of their dead tomcat, revealed at his hilarious midnight memorial service to be one of the greatest of all rooftop caterwaulers. There’s no attempt to draw down to the kids – the Simmonds’ social observation is as spikey as ever, in fact. The success of both books is rooted in their child-centred storyline, the progress of which is never impeded by adult knowingness however much of a bonus this will be for the grown-ups.
Finally, an extraordinary book.
The Angel and the Soldier Boy
Peter Collington, Methuen, 0 416 96870 8, £5.95
Not quite a debut since Little Pickle came out earlier this year. For that, Peter Collington was mentioned in Mother Goose dispatches (see Sally Grindley’s piece on page 15). For this, he’d surely have been a winner. It confirms a new talent accelerating to the front of the field – a wordless narrative of such ambition and charm it makes you breathless for what might be ahead. There are faults, of course. Here and there the figure-drawing isn’t quite right and the restraint of the colouring has faded into monotony by the end of the book. These are mere quibbles, though, set against the verve and originality of a story that could only be told in pictures: a toy angel’s rescue of a tin-soldier captured by pirates when he intervenes in their piggy-bank raid. An exercise in twee-ness? Not a bit of it when the whole house becomes an epic landscape in which a piano is mountainous and a potted plant as dense as a primeval forest. Lovely stuff.
And a good point to stop – before my top-ish twenty extends to a thrilling thirty. That’s only too easy with such a burgeoning of newcomers and oldcomers. If I didn’t know how long it takes to produce a picture-book I’d say it was something in the air. Like Spring, perhaps.