The frenetic nature of so much children’s entertainment, on film and television, makes the picture book seem a perfect haven: a sort of laptop theatre which can be enjoyed at the child’s own pace. But, given that children are now so visually literate, and can cope so easily with the graphic wizardry they see on screen, why do picture book publishers so seldom give free rein to inventive illustrators who dare to experiment? Joanna Carey investigates.
One illustrator consistently pushing out the boundaries, and exploring the possibilities of the picture book is Sara Fanelli; her new picture book, Dear Diary , celebrates not just the recording of personal experiences, but also the joy of handling a book – a journal – an exercise book – a sketch pad – a scrap book. Taking the form of an old fashioned schoolbook, with lines, squares, margins, columns and graph paper in a stout traditional binding, Dear Diary brings together an eccentric collection of inter-connecting episodes from the diaries of a little girl, a chair, a spider, a firefly, a knife and fork, and a dog.
Amongst a welter of collages and spirited illustrations, further embellished with labels, mottoes, inscriptions and pressed flowers, the stories are told in a jumble of graphic styles – everything from neat printing, wild scribbling, spidery doodles and scraps of musical notation to extravagant calligraphic flourishes and rhythmical copperplate handwriting. And you can easily forgive those children who will doubtless feel tempted to add their own doodles and hieroglyphs to this exhilarating celebration of things you can do with – and to – a book.
Lisbeth Zwerger is a subtly unconventional illustrator. In Alice in Wonderland she combines the delicacy, wit and airy elegance of her technique with a daring ability to crop her images in a startling way that really does reflect the curious dislocations of the narrative. Her Alice is perfect – a thoughtful, introspective and dignified child who seldom smiles and whose downcast eyes so eloquently reflect the puzzlement and frustration brought on by having to cope with the mad hatter, the Queen of Hearts or those twelve hopeless creatures in the jury box. Zwerger’s style is based on impeccable draughtsmanship and a stunning watercolor technique. In Thumbeline by Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1980 and now re-issued by North-South, you can see how her style has evolved over these 20 years, and how powerful an influence Arthur Rackham was on her early work.
Niamh Sharkey is another innovative illustrator. In Richard Walker’s lively retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk her easy-to-read pictures are drawn with a quirky but incisive schematic simplicity, creating quaintly expressive puppet like characters against subtly textured backdrops. Opulent endpapers, like theatre curtains, create a real sense of occasion.
In Princess Aasta by Stina Langlo Ordal, a lonely princess rather rashly puts an ad. in the paper (the Guardian): `little princess seeking big, cuddly bear friend.’ She gets replies from all round the world and settles on a huge polar bear. Her father, the king, is worried about `having a big dangerous Ursus Maritimus running about in his garden. But when he saw how much fun the two of them had together he left them alone…’ Far from being `twee’ as you might imagine, this is a bold, adventurous book. The drawings are uncompromisingly raw and scratchy, the princess is noticeably free of conventional beauty and the artist makes exciting use of space and scale. The typography has the urgent `scissors and paste’ look of a ransom note and the whole story is enigmatically framed by the footprints in the vast snowy endpapers.
A community of animals
Picture books have always allowed children to learn not just about themselves but also how to get along with others, however different they may be. This is where the diversity of the animal kingdom is so useful, and Max Velthuijs is the finest exponent of this genre. His little community of animals – Hare, Duck, Pig, Rat and Frog, act out all kinds of important everyday dramas with gentle wit and understanding. Frog is the pivotal character: somehow it’s always his naivety, his innocence, his gullibility or his impetuous behaviour that sparks off the stories. In Frog and a Very Special Day , Frog is aware that plans are being made, and he is convinced that he’s been left out – once again he’s got the wrong end of the stick. With the eloquent simplicity of his drawing and his expressive use of colour, Velthuijs again underlines the importance of friendship – and the delight there is to be had in simple things.
Blue Rabbit and the Runaway Wheel by Chris Wormell is about a rabbit whose recklessness on his bike causes havoc and distress in the neighbourhood. Rabbit however is unrepentant – without apology or explanation he hops on his bike, and pedals off. The message is clear – Rabbit has done wrong – and Wormell’s illustrations express with magnificent simplicity the reactions of Squirrel, Badger and Tortoise to Rabbit’s outrageous behaviour. The text is set in large print and the very beautiful lino cut illustrations, with their inky black outlines and finely modulated colours have the impact and luminosity of stained glass windows.
Little Pig Figwort by Henrietta Branford, and illustrated by Claudio Munoz, doesn’t have a message, it’s simply a light-hearted tale about a fidgety piglet who can’t get to sleep and longs for adventure. The book is distinguished not so much by Munoz’ imaginative fantasy spreads, as by the witty, affectionate observation in his vigorous brush drawings of the restless little pig struggling to get comfortable in a bedful of snoozing porkers.
Eric Carte draws not with a pen but a sharp blade – cutting the shapes for his distinctive collage illustrations from painted tissue paper. The shapes are uncompromisingly simple but rich in surface pattern, and the page design is airy and bold. In The Very Clumsy Click Beetle the diminutive hero of this (surprisingly hefty) book must learn to flip himself out of danger when he lands on his back. It’s a question of perseverance and, encouraged by passers-by, a worm, a turtle, a snail etc., he finally gets the hang of it and his success is celebrated with intriguing, electronic sound effects.
Also dealing with perseverance, but in a more frivolous vein, is Ruby the Ballet Star , a comic little pop-up book. Ruby, a comfortably plump guinea pig, feels at a disadvantage alongside the assortment of etiolated rodents in her ballet class but she perseveres and although the artwork is a bit bland, the robust and witty paper engineering enables her to become a star performer, whirling and twirling on ‘pointe’.
But of all these animal stories, perhaps the most beautiful is The Little Wood Duck by Brian Wildsmith. Although the psychedelic butterflies, the wilful colours and the free splodgy brushwork of the flowers and foliage place this firmly in the ’70s (it was first published in 1972) the drawing of the fox and the duck – and the delicate handling of the fur and feathers – have the tenderness of the wild life details you can find hidden away in early Italian paintings – and there’s an oriental feel to Wildsmith’s exquisite watercolour technique which captures the ephemeral thistledown texture of those fluffy ducklings.
Animals and humans
Peter Collington’s story Clever Cat shows animals interacting with humans. With his owners at work all day, Tibs has to learn to look after himself. Soon he’s able to cope with a cash card, a tin opener and a front door key. Then he gets caught up in the business of earning his own living, with a job in a cafe. Once on the treadmill he sees the advantages of being unemployed – like most cats – and realizes he’d rather be asleep on the doorstep. Collington, a self taught illustrator, has a gloriously quirky imagination and the painstaking quality of his drawings, and the scrupulous attention to detail gives them a surreal, slightly awkward intensity that is by turns comic, gripping and curiously convincing.
Equally engaging, but entirely different is Satoshi Kitamura’s story Me and My Cat? Kitamura has a polished technique with a distinctive, angular line that’s witty and expressive in its inexhaustible search for detail. This is an extremely funny tale of accidental magic, but the subtle textures and inky hues of the colour washes cast an exacting light on the suburban scene, and, with the purposeful incongruities of the classical allusions in the background, the humour has a cryptic edge to it.
Ebb’s New Friend by Jane Simmons has a nautical setting and features a dog, a bird and a little girl – a triangular relationship in which the dog deeply resents the presence of the bird. But when the bird goes missing the dog is sad. The animals are drawn with great good humour and when the bird returns, all’s well with the world. Recalling the atmosphere of John Burningham’s classic, Mr Gumpy’s Outing , these engaging illustrations have a painterly exuberance that makes you look forward to hot summer days on the river.
Fantasy, fairy tale and legend
Nobody Rides the Unicorn by the poet Adrian Mitchell, is a fairytale set in a faraway land. The king wants a unicorn and in order to entrap one he needs an innocent young girl to sit in the forest and sing sweetly. Zoe, a quiet gentle beggar girl, is summoned and the plan works perfectly – but when Zoe realizes the dreadful fate that lies in store for the unicorn, she vows to release it. Stephen Lambert creates atmospheric magic with dramatically cropped compositions and subtle shady colours that achieve a velvety bloom in their twilit intensity. This is a perfect coming together of words and pictures – creating a story of operatic breadth – lose yourself in it and you can almost hear the music…
Another story that benefits from the grace and economy of a poet’s prose is The Merrymaid of Zennor, a retelling by Charles Causley of an old Cornish legend. Dressed all in his Sunday best, Tom Taskis is the young tin miner who is lured away by the beautiful merrymaid who appears in church one day, a shimmering vision in white.
Zachy Pender is the boy who later rescues a tiny mer-baby, thrown ashore in a violent storm. Zachy’s kindness is rewarded one day by a glimpse of Tom and his merrymaid wife and children out at sea off the coast of Cornwall. Michael Foreman’s watercolours make a sensitive exploration of this text, reflecting the close nature of the small god-fearing village community, and capturing all the misty-moisty magic of the Cornish landscape.
With sparkling white cottages scattered higgledy-piggledy in child like perspectives against a rocky backdrop of deep indigo, purple, pink and magenta, illustrator Sheila Moxley gives the West Country a very different complexion in Stone Girl Bone Girl . Told by Laurence Anholt, and set in the early 19th century, in Lyme Regis, this is the true story of Mary Arming, a child who became fascinated by the fossils or `curiosities’ she found in the crumbling cliffs around her home, and who at the age of 12 became famous for her discovery of the remains of the great Icthyosaurus – the `fish lizard’. This is a very child friendly approach to history and geology and in addition to her colourful handling of the different rock strata Moxley provides an imaginative array of the prehistoric monsters that once roamed these parts.
In Brother Sun, Sister Moon Margaret Mayo tells stories and legends surrounding the life of St Francis of Assisi. Peter Malone’s illustrations, borrowing widely from a range of sources – illuminated manuscripts, Indian miniatures and early Italian paintings – are exquisite. Birds and animals are drawn with the meticulous eye of a miniaturist and the gentle, archaic attitudes of the figures give the work a rare stillness that further enhances the intensity of colour and the extraordinary luminosity he achieves.
This is the kind of book that is often described as a `gift book’ but that must not be allowed to mean that it’s kept on a high shelf where sticky fingers can’t mess it up – these stories and pictures have a unique enchantment that a thoughtful child will return to again and again.
Although it sounds like an ancient firm of city solicitors, Fair, Brown and Trembling by Jude Daly is an Irish version of the Cinderella story. (Fair and Brown are the ugly sisters; Cinderella is Trembling). Set in the Emerald Isle where the quality of light constantly suggests imminent rainfall, this is a charming, fast paced narrative. It’s full of medieval period detail with bustling Brueghelesque characters, a multi-cultural array of suitors and an appealing heroine who, on a spindly milk white steed, gallops across the wide green landscapes to a fairy tale ending with a prince and 14 children.
Meanwhile, as they say, in another part of the forest, Laura , the eponymous heroine of Binette Schroeder’s new book, wakes up early in her tree house home; out of the window something shimmers in the distance. Burning with curiosity Laura steps out into the exciting but not entirely unfamiliar territory of the fairytale; with a sort of `into the woods’ intertextuality she meets up with Humpty Dumpty. They spend a glorious day together but when night falls she has to help him overcome his fear of the dark, as the forest becomes a hostile mysterious place. Exploiting the luminosity of coloured chalks on textured black paper, Schroeder’s illustrations have the illusory depth and drama of stage sets, the perspectives cunningly emphasized in the angles that occur as the pages turn … there are some deliciously scary moments here and Laura’s bravery is rewarded by an intriguing transformation scene and a magical homecoming on the back of a giant bird.
And lastly, The Elephant and the Bad Baby . It’s now 30 years since this pair galloped into town on a scandalous shoplifting spree, snatching ice creams, biscuits, pies, cakes and lollies. But it’s not so much their failure to pay for anything that causes the scandal, it’s the fact that the baby never once says `Please’.
Raymond Briggs’ illustrations are wickedly funny, the shops and shop keepers are beautifully observed, with a wealth of period detail and some good jokes (like the pork pie hat). And the baby, a demanding little bruiser with mop of red hair, bears an interesting resemblance to Briggs’ subsequent 1992 creation, The Man . Good manners may be an old-fashioned concept – but this rousing little morality tale, written by Elfrida Vipont, and first published it 1969, shows that if you want to make point, the old formula of rhythm repetition and riotous assembly is hard to beat.
Joanna Carey is an author and illustrator and the former Children’s Rook editor of The Guardian .
Details of books discussed
Dear Diary , Sara Fanelli, Walker, 0 7445 6756 4,:C9.99 hbk
Alice in Wonderland , Lewis Carroll, ill. Lisbeth Zwerger, North-South, 0 7358 1166 0, £14.99 hbk
Thumbeline , Hans Christian Andersen, trans. Anthea Bell, ill. Lisbeth Zwerger, North-South, 0 7358 1213 6, £8.99 hbk, 0 7358 1210 1, £4.99 pbk
Jack and the Beanstalk , Richard Walker, ill. Niamh Sharkey, Barefoot, 1 901223 61 2, £9.99 hbk
Princess Aasta , Stina Langlo Ordal, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4127 2, £9.99 hbk
Frog and a Very Special Day , Max Velthuijs, Andersen, 0 86264 952 8, £9.99 hbk (published April 2000)
Blue Rabbit and the Runaway Wheel , Chris Wormell, Cape, 0 224 04765 5, £8.99 hbk
Little Pig Figwort , Henrietta Branford, ill. Claudio Munoz, Collins, 0 00 198336 9, £10.99 hbk
The Very Clumsy Click Beetle , Eric Carle, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 14089 7, £12.99 hbk
Ruby the Ballet Star , Harriet Griffey, ill. Anne Holt, Tango, 1 85707 465 3, £8.99 hbk
The Little Wood Duck , Brian Wildsmith, Oxford, 0 19 272401 0, £4.99 pbk
Clever Cat , Peter Collington, Cape, 0 224 04646 2, £9.99 hbk
Me and My Cat? Satoshi Kitamura, Andersen, 0 86264 925 0, £9.99 hbk
Ebb’s New Friend , Jane Simmons, Orchard, 1 84121 181 8, £4.99 pbk
Nobody Rides the Unicorn , Adrian Mitchell, ill. Stephen Lambert, Doubleday, 0 385 41025 5, £9.99 hbk
The Merrymaid of Zennor , Charles Causley, ill. Michael Foreman, Orchard, 1 85213 922 6, £9.99 hbk
Stone Girl Bone Girl , Laurence Anholt, ill. Sheila Moxley, Doubleday, 0 385 40984 2, £9.99 hbk
Brother Sun, Sister Moon , Margaret Mayo, ill. Peter Malone, Orion, 1 85881 615 7, £9.99 hbk
Fair, Brown and Trembling , Jude Daly, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1463 8, £10.99 libk
Laura , Binette Schroeder, trans. Rosemary Lanning, North-South, 0 7358 1170 9, £9.99 hbk
The Elephant and the Bad Baby , Elfrida Vipont, ill. Raymond Briggs, Puffin, 0 14 056691 0, £2.99 pbk