Trevor Dickinson on this year’s crop of spring picture books
Much that’s been written recently about British standards of literacy is marked by malice, madness or mere ignorance. The one reality behind illiteracy myths is the fact that the poor are likely to read worse than the rich. Meanwhile the £8.99 average cost of the books I’ve looked at this spring would absorb well over 10% of the weekly income of our nation’s poorest families. That fact makes me no less angry about threats to, and real cuts in, public and school library services than I was when I last reviewed Spring picture books for BfK in 1992. To take the issue of literacy with real political seriousness is to refuse to accept a discriminatory, evil, literacy-denying philistinism. It is to understand the essential truth of Stevie Smith’s assertion that:
Reading is an appetite which grows as it feeds, and if you give it weak and second-rate stuff it will never grow strong.
IN THE BEGINNING
Kipper’s Books of Counting (0 340 59848 4), of Colours (0 340 59847 6), of Weather ((0 340 59850 6 and of Opposites 0 340 59849 2) by Mick Inkpen are £3.99 Hodder & Stoughton hardbacks. They’re clear, simple, witty, entertaining and instructive with never more than two bold words per page.
Alan Baker has given us four distinguished books published by Kingfisher, each costing £5.99, and each centred on a rabbit. They are: Black and White Rabbit’s ABC (185697 179 1); White Rabbit’s Colour Book (185697 182 1); Brown Rabbit’s Shape Book (1856971813); and Grey Rabbit’s 1, 2, 3 (185697 180 5). The titles are self-explanatory. The vividness of the colour work combined with touches of young verse, humour and happy educational purpose is unique.
Kathy Henderson’s infectious light verse observations of aspects of early childhood in Bounce Bounce Bounce (Walker, 0 7445 22412, £5.99) and Bumpety Bump (Walker, 0 7445 2240 4, £5.99) are marvellously matched by Carol Thompson’s gently pastel illustrations. These books will be nursery winners.
Where’s My Mum? (Walker, 0 7445 3222 1, £7.99) is another case of perfect match of words, pictures and insight into children. Leon Rosselson’s simple rhymes and Priscilla Lamont’s quietly humorous illustrations blend brilliantly as Mum is searched for high and low.
From Mary Rayner, there are two minor Garth Pig counting miracles with One by One (0 333 59497 5) and Ten Little Piglets (0 333 59496 7). Both are published by Macmillan at £4.99. Both, with the musical text on the first page, are re-jigged versions of traditional songs. Both have all the usual fun associated with Mary Rayner’s work. They make rewarding demands of observant sharers of illustrations.
One, Two, Three, Count with Me by Catherine and Laurence Anholt (Heinemann, 0 434 96624 X, £7.99) is, as the title hints, a counting book with a strong rhyming element. Starting at one and going up to a million, the book is entertainingly and colourfully drawn, encouraging children, through a host of pictures, to take a watchful delight in number, in language and in the world around them.
Shari Halpern’s hand-painted cut-paper collages have made her version of the traditional nursery rhyme, Little Robin Redbreast (North South, 155858 247 9, £8.95), a book of extraordinarily simple, boldly effective beauty long to be treasured.
What Is the Sun? by Reeve Lindbergh (Walker, 0 7445 3202 7, £7.99) is another book of lasting distinction. His neatly skilled, simple verse, allied perfectly to Stephen Lambert’s sensitive artwork, captures with quiet, accurate humour the relentless questioning adults undergo from young children. There is also much to be learned here about the natural world.
Twenty-six years after the appearance of his first picture book, Eric Carle’s strength and quality are undiminished. His large format Today is Monday (Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 00233 8, £8.99) takes young readers on a bright journey through the days of the week, through foods, and offers them also a musical sing-along text. Lovely to look at; delightful to know.
The natural world is lovingly and engagingly explored in Flora McDonnell’s I Love Animals (Walker, 0 7445 2246 3, £8.99). Simple text with a strong, helpful, repetitive element introduces a knowledgeably observed collection of farmyard animals. Instruction and delight are happily married here.
Helen Lester’s Me First (Pan Macmillan, 0 395 58706 9, £7.99), illustrated cleverly and amusingly by Lynn Munsinger, first appeared in the USA a couple of years ago. It’s a moral tale which has lost nothing of its vitality and point on the trans-Atlantic journey. Pinkerton, the pushy little anthropomorphic pig at the centre of the story, receives his eventual come-uppance from the Sandwitch. The message will not easily be ignored by young readers – or their adult mentors!
An Extraordinary Egg by Leo Lionni (Andersen, 0 86264 537 9, £8.99) is another large-format American import. Three innocent young frogs are convinced that the large alligator egg they examine has been produced by a chicken. The gently amusing energy of the illustrations makes this book a pleasure to look at – along with the near certainty of the delight some young readers will take in being somewhat brighter than the frogs.
Andrew and Janet McLean’s tidily rhymed Dog Tales (Little Ark, Allen and Unwin, 186373 488 0, £7.99) comes from Australia. Helped by acutely observed, light-hearted artwork and amusing marginal details, it examines the lifestyles and characters of the five family dogs. It will give appeal here as much as it must have done in the southern hemisphere – and not, I suspect, only to dog-lovers.
Paper collage work is employed to excellent effect in Ed Young’s Seven Blind Mice (Andersen, 0 86264 472 0, £8.99), which won a Caldecott Honour on its 1992 USA publication. Based on the old fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, .Ed Young’s book is boldly bright in its colours and in its sharp white text against a jet-black background. It has that essential quality of encouraging the youngest children to look closely and to predict likely outcomes.
Charles Fuge, winner of the 1989 Mother Goose Award, teams up with Karen Hayles to deliver Whale Is Stuck (BBC, 0 563 36365 7, £7.99; 0 563 40356 X, £3.99 pbk). Young, confident readers will be helped by the large print narrative which tells the tale of unproductive efforts by Whale’s friends, led by a profoundly wrinkled and pompous Walrus, to free him from the Arctic floe on which he’s become stranded. They’ll take constant pleasure in, and learn from, these excellent illustrations.
Andy and Linda DaVolls have collaborated on Tano and Binti (Heinemann, 0 434 96630 4, £8.99), a most remarkable book rooted in the reality of two zoo-bred chimpanzees who are returned to their natural African forest habitat. Occasional flatness in the text is more than adequately compensated for by what the publishers rightly describe as captivating illustrations in a gently touching book that will have wide appeal not only amongst young children.
The eponymous hero of John Burningham’s Courtney (Cape, 0 224 03868 0, £8.99) is a cooking, table-waiting, violin-playing, juggling, fire-fighting, child-rescuing mongrel dog. My early doubts about a book which blends reality and extravagant fancy have been totally overcome by the responses of eager infants in my wife’s school: they take whole-heartedly to JB’s narrative and illustrative wit.
David McPhail’s Pigs A-plenty, Pigs Galore (Blackie, 0 216 94129 6,;E8.99) first appeared in the USA last year, and is assured of a warm and highly amused welcome elsewhere. Brilliantly and lovingly illustrated, it tells in light-hearted verse the story of pigs – eating, dressed bizarrely, behaving badly and inhabiting the narrator’s dreams. Every page is a feast.
Teddy! Where Are You? (Andersen, 0 86264 484 4, £7.00) sees Ralph Steadman at his prominent best. Here, blending fact and fancy, he lovingly and humorously draws together different generations in their enthusiasm for teddy bears, seemingly those most shabbily worn ever the most carefully loved. For the adult there are thinly disguised and rejected teddy bears in cardboard cities. The storyline keeps firm hold of the attention and the artwork is brilliant, despite its surface ease.
Sarah and the Sandhorse (Andersen, 0 86264 476 3, £8.99) is the result of a partnership between Andrew Baynes and Michael Foreman. The former tells, with a well-handled and haunting simplicity, the magical story of Sarah and the seaside sand-sculpted horse. At every point there’s the unfailingly apt support of Michael Foreman’s unsurpassably sensitive watercolours.
Ken Brown has illustrated Ivan Jones’ The Golden Cage (Andersen, 0 86264 490 9, £7.99) in gently powerful and effective fashion. There’s a nicely old-fashioned, slightly sentimental, fabled air about this book, although, in keeping with the traditions of such tales, there is a contemporary relevance. All focuses on self-centred, pampered only child, Abigail, for whom the blackbird she cages will not sing – until …
Tony Ross and Hiawyn Oram meet again with marvellous success in The Second Princess (Andersen, 0 86264 414 3, £7.99) an amusing tale of sibling jealousy which manages to include a humane Wolf, a happily married Bear, a slightly sinister Cook and a King who must surely have been influenced by the best advice on parenting from Dr Spock. The story bounces briskly along, helped at every point by Tony Ross’s abundantly comic joie de vivre.
The Little Apple Tree by Inga Moore (Simon & Schuster, 0 7500 1258 7, £8.99) sees lame little Lucy pleading with her father not to uproot the frail, barren apple tree in the corner of the garden. It’s a sentimental tale – and none the worse for that – simply told and illustrated with a totally appropriate softness that’s bound to have wide appeal.
First published in the USA, The Big Big Sea (Walker, 0 7445 25217, £7.99) is a miracle which draws together the unobtrusively poetic prose of Martin Waddell and the truly beautiful, sensitively touching artwork of Jennifer Eachus. This stunning combination explores mother and child’s moonlit walk by the sea – nothing more or less than that. The outcome is a work of art of the highest quality.
OTHER PEOPLE, OTHER PLACES, OTHER TIMES
It’s no surprise that Caroline Binch’s reputation seems to rise daily. Her Gregory Cool (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0817 4, £8.99) is the splendidly rich, authentically observed and simply told story of young Gregory’s holiday away from the UK with his grandparents in their home on the island of Tobago. Those lucky enough to have tasted the Caribbean will delight in the recollections stirred by this lovely book: for those less lucky, there are life-enhancing eye-openings – to scenery, to customs and to people.
A Little Tiger by Song Nan Zhang (Tundra, 0 88776 320 0, £9.99) is described as an `Autobiography in Art’ – an account of the artist’s upbringing and life in Communist China until his escape. It won’t, I suspect, appeal to everybody. There is, perhaps inevitably, an unease about the prose. Not all will accept the validity of the artist’s account; but there are insights here into a way of life with which most of us are likely for some time to be less than familiar. There is, moreover, a rewarding liveliness about the many full-page illustrations that ought to interest readers beyond the primary years.
Fiona French’s Little Inchkin (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0804 2, £8.99) is yet more proof of her artistic flair and flexibility. Here, she retells a Japanese version of the Tom Thumb legend. Little Inchkin slays the dragon, wins the princess, is blessed by Buddha and grows to full size. There is a dignity about the text that’s enriched by the sumptuous formality of the vividly coloured artwork.
Grandfather’s Dream (Random House, 0 688 12339 2, £8.99) initially appeared in the USA. Holly Keller takes us through text and through her watercolour artwork into what is, once more, likely to be unfamiliar territory – this time, Vietnam. However, the simply told story, of an ambition to reclaim wetlands and to see the Sarus cranes return, is universal in its implications and its green credentials. The pictures of landscape and of people are convincingly illuminating. The note of hope is welcome.
Another book first published in the USA in 1992 with pictures by Caldecott Medal winner, Barbara Cooney, is Michael Bedard’s Emily (Julia MacRae, 1 85681039 9, £9.99) and it’s a most rewarding oddity. There’s a quaintness about the artwork that’s totally in keeping with the book’s subject, the inimitably quirky American poet, Emily Dickinson. At the centre of the story is her reputed friendliness towards children despite her reclusive nature. Perhaps her amity was an outcome of her apparent inability at the age of 53 to meet the current National Curriculum requirement for joined-up writing?
Prince Ivan and the Firebird (Barefoot, 1898000 60 3, £9.99) sees a combination of Cherry Gilchrist’s words and Andrei Troshkov’s art in this re-telling of the Firebird tale. The story reads well aloud and, with outstanding support from rich and carefully stylized’ illustrations, is likely to be a new cultural experience for many young readers.
Roy Gerrard gives us a minor masterpiece in Croco’nile (Gollancz, 0 575 05600 2, £8.99). His rhymed verse narrative moves apace along the Nile, among pyramids, through hieroglyphics, gloriously matched by entertaining illustrations which combine off-beat humour and a closeness of observation that can only serve to enlarge understanding and appreciation of ancient Egyptian life.
The Alfie Treasury (Bodley Head, 0 370 31935 4, £9.99) by Shirley Hughes brings into one new hardback collection four of the much-loved Alfie stories which appeared first in 1981. Her Nursery Collection (Walker, 0 7445 3210 8, £8.99) comprises five of her wonderful early years’ books from 1985 and 1986.
John Burningham’s First Steps (Walker, 0 7445 3247 7J7.99) draws together four 1985 infant concept books – on numbers, the alphabet, colours and opposites – their relevance undiminished by time, their initial praise no less deserved.
Also highly praised on their first separate appearances nine and ten years ago are the five animal stories by Derek Hall appearing now as Baby Animals (Walker, 0 7445 3279 5, £7.99). John Butler’s excellently attentive artwork has not faded and the prose has lost nothing of its simple strength.
It is impossible to resist a mention of the return of Charles Keeping’s Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary (Oxford, 0 19 279628 3, £9.99). Since first appearing in 1967, it has retained all its initial energy and penetrating social concern. Brilliantly blurred, the illustrations perfectly complement the text in telling the tale of two children separated by urban renewal but miraculously reunited by the golden canary. In a gloomy world Keeping’s hopeful candle is still much needed.
Trevor Dickinson OBE retired two years ago from being a member of HM Inspectorate. His travelling roadshow promoting children’s books and reading was well-known throughout the UK and is still fondly remembered.