Interviewed recently by the Yorkshire Post (25 Jan ‘95, Women’s Post, pp 4-5), Alec Williams, sandalled sage of Calderdale, remarked ‘the best thing about a picture book is that it goes across two laps’. Now a lap can be a bit metaphorical – it might just as well be a table in a school library or a floor at home – but if a picture book isn’t something that is too good always to be kept to oneself, isn’t something that, on certain occasions, gains from being huddled or cuddled over, then for me – and Alec -it’s not up to snuff.
And a picture book must not only go across two laps, it must also get round two laps, at least, of the sustained interest circuit. Its ability to do this depends upon the extent to which it derives its own momentum from the engagement of the story with its pictures. These must potentiate and drive each other so the two are inconceivable separately. Collections of lovely pictures with a naff text are a waste of ability and would often be more honestly presented and have more effect as calendars or friezes. Conversely, pictures which don’t illustrate but merely decorate a self-sufficient tale again demonstrate a mis-application of talent.
So with the mesh set at these limits, let’s see the net result of a trawl through the myriad shoals of recent output.
A good tale is a good tale and so there’s always room for a skilled and sympathetic retelling like Jan Pancheri’s The Twelve Poodle Princesses (Hutchinson, 0 09 176710 5, £8.99), which transforms the well-known dancers into enthusiastic poodlettes (yes, they still wear out their slippers, they dance on their hind feet) whose secret is unmasked by honest mongrel, Valentine. Bright-eyed and tousled, he properly engages our sympathy before returning enriched with ‘marrowbone jelly and custard’ as well as cash to his rural roots. Rural roots, too, pertain for Jig, Fig and Mrs Pig by Peter Hansard, ill. Francesca Martin (Walker, 0 7445 3294 9, £7.99). Poor downtrodden Jig Pig discharges all the rotten jobs she gets with a serene generosity of spirit. Predictably, after an encounter of the traditional kind, she utters a jewel with every word whereas bullying Fig Pig, after the same encounter, spits forth only toads and snakes. Of course this story doesn’t work if you accord toads and snakes a price above rubies, but the pleasant, rather medieval pictures, help dispel that problem. Medievality rules again in Marcia Williams’ The Adventures of Robin Hood (Walker, 0 7445 3283 3, £8.99). Eleven adventures – one per handsomely large spread – get the Williams ‘bande desiree’ treatment with lots of Lincoln green, benign jokes, traditional (i.e. Good King Richard, Bad King John) history and a Much the Miller’s Son who’s obviously an antecedent of Stanley Bagshaw. Susan Williams does the pictures for Elizabeth Hawkins’ The Moon’s Dress (Oxford, 0 19 279957 6, £7.99) – an expansion of the Aesop fable about the celestial dressmaking mother who twice fails to fit the figure of her waxing, waning daughter. She eventually decides to go out naked every night, to the delight of the terrestrial crowds. A near lyric text is well matched by soft pastelly pictures full of affectionate detail in an imaginative layout. The whole effect is utterly restful. Vibrant jangling colours and bold shapes beat out a very different rhythm in Jessica Souhami’s The Leopard’s Drum (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0906 5, £8.99) – a traditional West African tale whose presentation here derives from Mme. Souhami’s successful shadow-puppet show. Osebo the leopard gets his come-uppance and Aehicheri the tortoise gets the hard shell she always wanted. This cumulatively repetitive and many-charactered story really begs performance.
Moving away from retellings but staying in West Africa, we come to Emeka’s Gift (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0934 0, £8.99). Billed as a ‘Counting Story’ the book’s strength is its collection of photographic images of contemporary Nigeria and the utterly integrated text, all by Ifeoma Onyefulu. We learn a lot, too. With Richard Brassey we can learn How to speak Chimpanzee (Orion, 1 85881 220 8, £8.99). As chimps continue to attract our curiosity, an illustrated guide to their language must be a good thing; when it comes with excellently precise facial illustrations and performance hints for the student, it’s a sensation. ‘Try this on your parents when you’re hungry’ counsels Brassey: ‘stick out your lips in a big pout. Grunt lots of times. Point to what you want and hold out your hand. It usually works.’ There’s lots of humour here and, above all, total respect for the chimpanzee in a remarkably original book from an author/illustrator utterly new to me.
There would be no Africa without elephants. Natascha Biebow’s Elephants never Forget (ABC. 1 85406 226 3, £7.95) pleases me enormously. It’s a simple and true story of elephant life and death; the text is slow and gentle, marvellously matched by Britta Teckentrup’s spacious clear-aired and utterly African painting. It shows beautifully the extent of elephants’ dignity, loyalty and family feeling.
Family life with animals is always a fertile field. Kathryn Larsky’s Pond Year (Walker, 0 7445 2807 0, £7.99) is a celebration of the unglamorous, muddy, scummy things that many small ponds are and how well they can provide a focus for friendship. There’s a lot of good natural history here – well pictured by Mike (Think of an Eel) Bostock – American but none the worse for that, although when there are muskrats (which the ‘scum chums’ never see) and crawdaddies, how come they call their pollywogs ‘tadpoles’? Is American folk-nomenclature changing? Jennifer Northway fans (count me in) may remember Lucy and Alice from earlier books. Here these nice back-garden girls recede into the middle distance as Lucy’s Rabbit (Scholastic, 0 590 54185 4, £8.99) runs riot in house and garden, outsmarting everyone in the extended mixed-race family before settling into proper quarters. Great portraits of the star, and, yes, it’s black and white.
Diana Hendry’s lead characters often seem to bring out the best in their supporting casts and Dog Dottington (Walker, 0 7445 3284 1, £7.99) is no exception. All the Dottingtons are scared of something – from spiders to puddles – so they get a dog to help them cope. But, oh dear, ‘Hero’ Dottington’s even more scared of everything than they are. Magically, by trying to assuage Hero’s fears, the Dottingtons lose their own. Margaret Chamberlain’s rubber-jointed pictures are a joy and her image of aquaphobic Molly Dottington gamely carrying a resigned Hero over a puddle is my favourite image of the whole year. This book is a real gem.
The Rattlebang Picnic (Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 13477 3, £8.99) is written by Margaret Mahy, whose chaotic narrative style consorts well with Steven Kellogg’s illustrations to tell the story of the McTavish family’s enormously lucky escape (aided by Granny’s indestructible pizza doing duty as a car wheel) from a volcanic cataclysm. ‘Hilarious’ is a much over-used word but here I think it’s well deserved in this portrait of a family whose eccentricities are its strengths. A gentler sort of hilarity pervades Benedict Blathwayt’s The Runaway Train (Julia MacRae, 1 85681 077 1, £8.99). In his efforts to help an old lady board his train, Duffy Driver lets it run away without him. Chasing it by helicopter, lorry, tractor, boat, bike and horse through landscapes of an Anno-like busy-ness, he finally catches it arriving at its seaside destination. Naturally, the old lady has a lovely day out and returns safely. Duffy’s train is, of course, hauled by a little red engine; now, can the Diana Ross who’s just written Prickety Prackety (Julia MacRae, 1 85681 600 1, £9.99) be that same supreme storyteller who delighted me with the original L.R.E. all those years ago? I’m disposed to think so, for this is a lovely story – about a little red hen – which reads smooth as silk. Showing traditional little-red-henly independence, Prickety Prackety successfully minds her own business which is the production of an equally traditional dozen fluffy yellow chicks to everyone’s admiration. A thoroughly satisfying story, gaining extra character from Caroline Crossland’s pictures. Another little red hen tale comes from Mary Wormell whose bold linocuts show us what happened on Hilda Hen’s Happy Birthday (Gollancz, 0 575 05745 9, £8.99). Jill Tomlinson and Kathleen Hale have already provided two memorable hens called Hilda, and then there was another who, for a while became Prime Minister, but this Hilda has much more to do with Rosie’s Walk. Like Rosie she takes a gentle stroll round the farm, indulging herself all the way, oblivious of the consternation she causes (but we know, don’t we, children!). A trite little story, perhaps, but with splendidly narrative pictures and, come to think of it, perhaps the Thatcherian similarity isn’t so faint after all.
When I started John Prater’s The Greatest Show on Earth (Walker, 0 7445 3221 3, £7.99) I thought it must be the story of the young John Major – who ran away from the circus to join the bank – but no – Harry, youngest and least competent member of a large circus family, emerges after a chapter of spectacular accidents as a gifted clown. Harry’s family are all unremittingly good-humoured; not so Andrew in Andrew’s Angry Words (North-South, 1 55858 435 8, £8.95). He lets fly a volley of pictorial abuse when his sister trips over him. The imprecations travel on and on from person to person in a splenetic torrent until a wise market lady collects and dumps them in the sea, providing instead ‘all the kind and happy words I know’ which helps Andrew put everything right. Line and wash drawings by Thé Tjong Khing actually look rather French (by de Brunhoff out of Sempé, say) and serve the story well. Dennis, the ineffective monster, gets cross, too, in Jeanne Willis and Susan Varley’s The Monster Storm (Andersen, 0 86264 553 0, £7.99). Frightened and annoyed by his first thunderstorm he wreaks vengeance by making his own rough music – which becomes even louder when a saucepan gets stuck on his head. Appalled by the noise, a baby rabbit, is consoled by his mum:
‘It’s only a thunderstorm. Sleep if you can,
It isn’t a monster attacking a pan,
Monsters aren’t real…’
and then they go and find out!
Another mum who gets a surprise is Little Panda’s in Michael Foreman’s Surprise! Surprise! (Andersen, 0 86264 572 7, £7.99). Little Panda doesn’t like the dark but bravely uses his bedside moon-light to help grow a plant in the attic for his mother’s birthday. Come the day, Mum, Dad and LP all troop up to the attic and – Surprise! Surprise! (and p.s. Little Panda’s not afraid of the dark now). This is Foreman in playful, colourful mode.
More in-family surprises in Lucy Cousins’ Za-za’s Baby Brother (Walker, 0 7445 3759 2, £8.99). It’s a familiar plot – Za-za’s nose is put out of joint by the arrival of the all-consuming brother but she recovers when she finds that she can cuddle as well as be cuddled. Cousins naive style displays a lot of observation, is easy to appreciate under stress and is ideally suited to the early stages of sibling rivalry; it amuses grown-ups too. (Oh, did I say, Za-za is a zebra.) Naïveté of a different kind pervades Sarah Fanelli’s My Map Book (ABC, 1 85406 225 5, £8.95). The publisher’s puff says Fanelli’s technique ‘combines collage, drawing and painting in an almost imperceptible style’ (my italics). Well, I perceive it all right – it’s a sort of Raoul Dufy meets Spike Milligan and very effective, too, in providing a series of personal maps of ‘my family’, ‘Saturday and Sunday’, ‘favourite foods’ and ‘my dog’, as well as neighbourhood and seaside. This is a book to return to again and again, each time discovering more. The publishers bless them, say it’s ‘perfect to pour over’ (my italics, again) by which I suppose they mean it’s perfect for a rainy day -they’re right.
Zoom (Viking, 0 670 85804 8, £9.99) by Istvan Banyai is a sort of map as well. As we zoom out from a farmyard, we see it as part of a far larger and ever expanding landscape whose identity and location keep surprising us. Then, when all is ingeniously revealed, we zoom off again leaving, eventually, a world the size of a pinhead. There are few words in this book – all in the pictures and all essential. I look forward to the next one, but if it never comes this will still be a brilliant original which those who remember the Bonzo Dog conundrum in The Mouse and His Child will love.
Back to earth with a bump to meet Tattybogle, Sandra Horn’s characterful scarecrow (Andersen, 0 86264 596 4, £8.99). Wind and weather may dismember him but his spirit and his central stick remain to take root and become a catkinned willow tree – much admired by all, including Tattybogle’s scarecrow successor. It’s a lovely idea – the up-side of reincarnation and some great drawing (dog especially) from Ken Brown. Things grow, too, in Rachel’s Roses (Barefoot, 1 898000 37 9, £8.99) by Karen Christensen. Bernadette Watts did the pictures for this simple tale of a little girl and her mum growing a rose bush. It’s really nice and pretty and contains what seedsmen call ‘cultural directions’ so you can grow your own roses (organically, too). We’d all be a lot worse off without Bernadette Watts’ steady output of thoroughly pleasant work.
In Michael Morpurgo’s Blodin the Beast (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0850 6, £8.99), hideous Blodin stalks the land condemning its inhabitants to slavery or death by the fire he breathes, which is fuelled by their labours, for his thirst for oil is unquenchable. There’s one wise man in a so far untouched village who knows how to destroy Blodin. In a classic combination of wisdom and faith, Old Shanga and young Hosea succeed – at the cost of Shanga’s life – in ridding the land of its tyrant and forging a fairer future. I’ve never seen a style like Christina Balit’s but her contribution to this book is immense. Her tenebrous images of Blodin are made all the more menacing because she never shows us all of him – he’s woven into the landscape and remains always a partial mystery. This is one terrific book which deserves a lap of honour, and anyone who wants to regard it as an allegory for our times will find in it plenty to justify such a claim.
And lastly, a little indulgence. I don’t normally go for gimmick books. All too often artifice is their master rather than their servant, but for Babette Cole’s Dogs (Heinemann, 0 434 97146 4, £2.99) and Ponies (Heinemann, 0 434 97144 8, £2.99) I have to make an exception. Here are the very essences of hippophilia and dogginess distilled into two tiny volumes each with five spreads. There’s paper engineering at its durable best (watch the pony kick the vet) and lots of love and laughter. Tiny they may be but these are two-lappers most certainly. And two laps – as you will remember best beloved – is what it’s all about.
Ted Percy is a regular reviewer of non-fiction books for BfK. Before retiring to live in Roxburghshire, he was Divisional Children’s Librarian with Buckinghamshire County Library.