Chris Powling finds reasons to be cheerful as he takes his pick of recent picture books
So high are our expectations these days that it’s all too easy to be off-hand about excellence: don’t ring us Ms. Berridge, Brown, Murphy, Hutchins, etc. – not to mention Messrs. Blake, Foreman, Oakley, Ross and Steadman -we’ll ring you. Or maybe we won’t. We’ll just log your latest as being no more than we deserve.
If we do, though, it’ll be an injustice. Yes, it’s sad that for the first time in eight years there are too few exciting newcomers to justify making the Mother Goose Award, but this shouldn’t blind us to the quality of established talent. Judging by this batch of books, there’s much we can still celebrate.
I Want My Potty
Tony Ross, Andersen Press, 0 86264 137 3, £4.95
Here we have Tony Ross at his outrageous best. His subject is the potty-training of a mini-royal – not so much the Princess and the Pea (though given the `accident’ with which it ends this fits too) as the Princess and the Po. Only those with a face to match won’t be entranced by the slim-line text and sharp-line drawings funny enough to counter every inhibition.
That’s My Dad
Ralph Steadman, Andersen Press, 0 86264 133 0, £4.95
This is fairly unbridled too. It offers infants an eye-view – or, in this case an ear, nose and throat view – of Dad seen from unusual angles. These build up to a portrait which is, quite literally, Something Else. A striking blend of colour and cartooning from an artist whose child-appeal can’t always be guaranteed, but who here gets it hilariously right.
Our Cat Flossie
Ruth Brown, Andersen Press, 0 86264 120 9, £4.95
A straightforward charmer. If the combination of simple text and painterly pictures doesn’t have you rolling over for a tum-tickle then either you’re a cocker-spaniel or allergic to all things feline. Sheer quality lifts this conventional treatment of a conventional subject into a class of its own.
Where Are You Ernest and Celestine?
Gabrielle Vincent, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 242 3, £5.50
Why change the title from the French original `Ernest et Celestine au Musee’? A failure of nerve, possibly-museums being something of a minority taste. But so perhaps are the Ernest and Celestine books with their exquisite line and delicate wash. In this one, big bear and small mouse lose each other in the Louvre though not before Celestine’s smile has been matched with the Mona Lisa’s … okay, so it is for a minority. Let’s hope it’s habit-forming, too.
The Doorbell Rang
Pat Hutchins, Bodley Head, 0 370 30726 7, £5.25
Something of a tour-de-force since it’s the exact opposite of Rosie’s famous walk: here it’s more a matter of arrival than travelling hopefully as would-be cookie-consumers crowd into a kitchen which is almost identical in every spread. How can so static a scenario exude such vigour? That’s Pat Hutchins’s secret. Even so, when Granny turns up with extra cookies it’s in the nick of time.
William Joyce, Gollancz, 0 575 03794 6, £5.95
George wakes up to a list of chores, a baby brother and absent parents. Maybe he shrank to pay them out. This is William Joyce’s debut as author and illustrator so never mind the quality of the logic, feel the width of his invention as George tom-thumbs his nose at all difficulties in drawings as bright and solid as nursery building bricks. A talent worth watching, this.
Whiskers and Rhymes
Arnold Lobel, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 186 9, £6.25
. and so is Arnold Lobel’s even if we have been watching it for years. His verses are splendid as usual – loony, lumpy and deft just like his drawings. Every character here is a cat, hence the title, so it’s only right that each page is about nine times as lively as the average picture-book. Best of all is the bearded bookcat who sits beneath a teetering pile of publications as if to reflect the tradition within which this marvellous illustrator is working. Or maybe, with any luck, they represent his future contributions to it.
Five Minutes Peace
Jill Murphy, Walker Books, 0 7445 0491 0, £4.95
Yes, something of a Murphy set-peace, but still worth the re-run. Elephants, not teddy bears, appear here, as Mrs Large struggles for a bit of time to herself amidst the bedlam of a family breakfast. Where’s Mr Large do I hear you ask? Well out of it, apparently, with the bold,, chunky pictures depicting a situation which both kids and their keepers will recognise instantly. Mrs Large must be slow on the uptake or she’d have reached for a book like this to keep them quiet.
To remind us how hot the competition is for classic status these days consider a couple of illustrators with books newly re-issued. In hardback from Blackie come Joanna Troughton’s Tortoise’s Dream and How Rabbit Stole the Fire, each at £6.50, the sort of folk-tales in read-aloud prose and gasp-aloud colour which get design and decoration a good name. And in paperback from Oxford, at £2.50 each, we get Brian Wildsmith no less with The Lion and the Rat, The North Wind and the Sun, and The Lazy Bear. Seeing these favourites – so sumptuous, so distinctive, so familiar – in such mint condition is enough to eclipse the mere novelty of what’s new.
Well, almost. As we move up the age-range there’s even more scope for that weird alchemy which can combine words and pictures into something richer than either achieves on its own.
Celia Berridge and Paul Rogers, Viking Kestrel, 0 670 80599 8, £5.95
Paul Rogers’s verse and Celia Berridge’s pictures plot the hide-and-seek progress or Flossie (a sheep this time) through countryside as idealised as Rupert Bear’s Nutwood. Miraculously, it casts the same sort or spell, too – buckled shoes, broderie-anglaise smocks and all. Flossie’s frolic brings her, satisfyingly, back to her starting-point with real lire kept firmly at bay.
Helen Ganly, Andre Deutsch, 0 233 97899 2, £5.95
Jyoti’s journey, though, is sadly one-way – from the brightness or an Indian village to the drabness or an English tenement. A beautifully understated exploration or culture-shock in a series or collages based on wallpaper cut-outs. There’s text at the root or each page, but most kids won’t need it given the eloquence or these highly-stylised pictures which, for all their attractiveness, bring real lire firmly to the fore.
Stanley Bagshaw and the Short-Sighted Football Trainer
Bob Wilson, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11783 6, £6.50
Still-perky as a cloth cap. Stanley triumphs once again in Bob Wilson’s latest reminder that the tradition or verse and comic-strip isn’t confined to Rupert Bear. Or course, this celebration or all things Northern is just as idealised in its way. Stanley’s last-second penalty-save comes as a Total Lack or Surprise. Who cares? In this case familiarity breeds utter content.
Panda and the Bushfire
Michael Foreman, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11656 2, £6.25
By now, Panda and his winged-lion chum are pretty familiar too. So prolific is Michael Foreman that every new book threatens to devalue his currency – yet ends up confirming a talent impervious to the normal mechanisms or the market-place. Here his odd, curiously resonant, duo bolster their epic status with koalas, firefighters, and spread-after-spread or the Great Yonder, blue and otherwise. Makes most picture-books seem stay-at-home.
The Rain Door
Quentin Blake and Russell Hoban, Gollancz, 0 575 03097 6, £5.95
Russell Hoban has a healthy sense or Yonder too – but sometimes leaves the rest of us behind in his pursuit or it. Even this image or a summer storm as the overspill or a junkyard-cum-wasteland in the sky won’t convince everybody. Has Quentin Blake ever been better, though? His illustrations bring such .verve and pace and atmosphere we scarcely notice the contrivance or the text. Look at the last page, where Harry says goodbye to the cosmic rag-and-bone man, to see how sheer deftness or line and brushstroke can shrivel the pretensions or language.
Yellow and Pink
William Steig, Gollancz, 0 575 03795 4, £4.95
On the other hand, words have their place too when it comes to effing the ineffable. Philosophically, William Steig’s rumination on Where We Come From is a cheat, but kids bright enough to be interested will enjoy the deadpan comedy of the text as much as the witty, off-hand illustrations. This debate about their origins between two mannikins is a lovely example of the range of subject-matter picture books can encompass … even if it does raise questions about the age of the intended reader.
Anno’s Three Little Pigs
Mitsumasa Anno and Tuyosi Mori, Bodley Head, 0 370 30898 0, £6.95
So does Anno’s latest offering. In this version of the well-known nursery tale, the wolf is Socrates no less, with Xanthippe his wife ravenously in attendance. Prior to eating the three little pigs, Socrates tries to work out their current deployment between four cottages. Thereby he raises them to the power of digits in a full scale exercise in combinational analysis, mathematical permutations and combinations. These are laid out in page after exquisitely designed page. I don’t doubt for a second that Anno and Tuyosi Mori, his collaborator, have got their logic right. Nor am I surprised that Socrates and Xanthippe lose their appetite for bacon in the end. This is the perfect book for a toddler with advanced computer skills or a systems-analyst of whimsical disposition. When I next come across either I shall recommend it heartily.
Jack at Sea
Philippe Dupasquier, Andersen Press, 0 86264 128 4, £5.95
In comparison this is strictly for the rough trade. It begins with a press-gang and ends with a shipwreck as young Jack (Tar?) discovers that life is not so jolly when you sail before, beneath, behind and atop the mast – and such an all-round view is what we get from Dupasquier’s pictures which are linked with the minimum of text. What emerges draws on realism for its detail and on strip-cartoon for its energy, but isn’t quite either. A fetching combination, though, for youngsters sea-struck rather than word-struck.
The Baron on the Island of Cheese
Patrick Benson and Adrian Mitchell, Walker, 0 7445 0334 5, £4.95
Maritime exploits again, but wordier withal, as Adrian Mitchell, alias Munchausen, narrates another tale tall and surreal enough to be proto-Python. The real Baron here, though, is Patrick Benson, a former Mother Goose Award winner, whose pictures were supposedly ‘drawn in the belly of a whale’. Gorgeous, detailed and unflaggingly inventive, they respond to every manic twist of the storyline while retaining a distinctive style of their own. What more could older children ask of a picture-book?
Graham Oakley, Macmillan, 0 333 40841 1, £4.95
Well, Graham Oakley, perhaps. As ever, the mock-verbosity of his text is a perfect counterpoint to his mock-heroic illustrations seen here in full-spread splendour as Henry embarks on a quest for petrol-a dubious resource in a post-industrial world rampant with myth, superstition and anachronism. Jokes abound, though the humour is darker and the theme more sombre than usual. Once again, Oakley never lets words do the work of pictures and assumes no less care and attention from us than we assume from him.
The Lady of Shalott
Charles Keeping and Lord Tennyson, Oxford, 0 19 276057 2, £4.95
Charles Keeping on the other hand, reminds us only of Charles Keeping – which is just as well perhaps when he’s illustrating so well-known a poem. Nothing less could dislodge the private vision created by the words themselves – in this case an alternative black-and-white view that’s awesomely powerful but surprisingly statuesque. The famous flowing, skimming and winding down to Camelot is presented here as a series of well-struck poses. As tableaux they’re superb. Doesn’t the live theatre of the verse upstage them, though?
Son of Dracula
Victor Ambrus, Oxford, 019279813 8, £5.95
This is Victor Ambrus in his gore-blimey vein – like Ronald Searle in technicolour. Creatures creepy and tacky devise a school curriculum, Transylvanian-style, for the Nigel Molesworth in all of us. The emphasis is on terrible jokes. Great fun even if it can’t compete with what Sir Keith is doing in real life.
Altogether, I’d suggest, an up-cheering consignment. But the handiest opportunity to assess current verbal/ visual standards comes with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories now issued as Picturemacs at £1.75 each. Ambrus, Blake, Foreman and Keeping appear again here along with Baker, Baynes, Brierley, Cheese, Ebborn, Stobbs, Taylor and Thorne – to place them in cautious alphabetical order. It’s a rare chance to compare first-team talent
working at full stretch. This must have been quite an assignment for all of them. Words as good as Kipling’s not only challenge the most gifted of illustrators, there’s another snag too: the best ever Just So pictures were drawn by someone with an unfair advantage – Kipling himself.