Quentin Blake searches through the current crop of Spring picture books for tiles that have that certain something that sets them apart.
Over the years, I have to admit, I have had plenty of dealings (in books) with funny animals, so that perhaps I am hardly the person to be making the following observation; but going through the pile of picturebook publications before me, I must confess to being a touch dismayed by the droves of them: funny dogs, funny goats, funny lambs, funny monkeys, the whole funny menagerie. If a lot of this is quite stereotyped it is nonetheless quite acceptable, quite harmless. But, ungraciously to single out one example: The Selfish Crocodile (text by Faustin Charles, pictures by Mike Terry) tells a jungle story of a crocodile who is made happy by a mouse who daringly removes his aching tooth; harmony then prevails amongst the river’s inhabitants. It’s hard not to let one’s mind wander to Doctor De Soto, William Steig’s treatment of a similar plot, and to remember Steig’s poise and discretion, his sense of scale, and his sense of all the difficulties of the situation. The idea of that kind of involvement is what sets me off through these new publications on the look-out for books that have something individual or idiosyncratic about them.
The poet of the picture book form
It is a natural reaction to turn straightaway to John Burningham, a sort of poet of the picture book form, and of visual improvisation. Somehow Burningham always seems to have a strong sense of where he is going but to be surprised by the route; he seems to be re-inventing drawing on each occasion, and making up pictures out of whatever materials come to hand. Last year, in Cloudland, there was a more deliberate bringing-together of two elements: drawing and photography. I don’t remember any reviewer being as impressed as I was at the way he brought it off – getting those alert-eyed, tentatively-pencilled children to inhabit the clarity of real-life cumulus. It was a feat. Now, in Whadayamean, he mixes together photography and quite a lot of other things. God comes down to check up on what a mess we have made of the world and makes a tour with two children who happen to be picnicking under a tree; and Burningham’s techniques are particularly effective for scenes of pollution – seem, sometimes, almost to be made of detritus – as well as impressive effects of light and weather. Probably no one else could propose a story in which the problems of the world are resolved by two children invoking the authority of God. But it’s impossible not to respond to it, and I leave it to other BfK reviewers to discover the possible range of children’s reactions.
Electric energy and great atmosphere
Another rather similar ecological fable – The Tale of the Heaven Tree by Mary Joslin and Milo So – has a completely different visual treatment: line, electric with nervous energy, and a lively use of watercolour. It is able to convey not only a scene of devastation but also the springing life of trees and birds which is the main message of the book.
There is no message in And If the Moon Could Talk, but a great sense of atmosphere – conveyed less in Kate Banks’ text than in the illustrations of Georg Hallensleben. Hallensleben works in what one has to describe as a painterly style, unusual for an illustrator. You can see the marks of the paint, applied with a brush of the sort generally used for oil-paint, and as a result almost any small detail is impossible. The compensation is a sense of richness and substance; and in this book the artist uses this painterly style to depict wonderfully evocative night scenes: dark houses with lights shining in their windows, mountains, moonlight reflected in water. The best double-page spreads are effectively small paintings; and perhaps it is to be expected that to relate typography to them is a problem. It is not always perfectly solved here in a book that is in other respects very attractive to the eye and the feelings.
On the wild side
This does not exhaust the range of approaches amongst the books I have chosen. Of three which are identifiably on the wild side (is the wild side a bit further out than it used to be, or do I just imagine that?) the most visually attractive is Joanna Walsh’s. What if? explores the rich and attractive territory already visited by, for instance, John Burningham in Would You Rather? and by Michael Rosen in some of his verses, but there is obviously plenty of room here for more speculation. Walsh carries it out with a happy mixture of cut-paper shapes, free crayon drawing and snippets of ready-printed matter from elsewhere. This is a nice world to be in, and if there is any slight sense of self contradiction, it comes from the fact that the technique is essentially decorative. Perhaps a touch more reality would help to convince us that, after the disappearance of ‘our’ parents, it is really the cat getting the breakfast.
Lauren Child’s drawings in I Want a Pet are engaging and certainly wild; try to imagine Steig with a hangover. We are reassured that in this book we are not meant to be well-behaved. If the potential for fun is not completely realised it may be for two reasons. One is that the way the drawings are arranged doesn’t show the same freedom of approach in the drawings themselves – they sit opposite us in the middle of the page, not ever allowing the depiction of some of the characters mentioned. If granny and granpa are as crazy as the animal, I want to see them. The other reason, or at least so it seemed to me, was that once into the mode of caricature the artist could have gone even more heavily for the unattractive features of the prospective pets. However, the book ends with an elegant twist that leaves the reader speculating happily beyond the limits of the story.
The Photo by Neal Layton has a goofily cheerful story about a family of aliens landing in a zoo for a day out that might not be out of place in a children’s comic. What distinguishes it is that it too is, in its mad way, painterly: you can see paint quality, scribbling, gouging, and some people may feel it is too childish. But the humour is infectious and the way the pictures take the page has actually been thought about – every double-page spread is a new experience, and moves the story on.
Taxidermy at bay
The other end of the spectrum, I suppose, is New Born; a book about the new baby by Kathy Henderson with pictures by Caroline Binch. The book is described as being perhaps for the new arrival’s older siblings; but I suspect that its most appreciative audience will be of mothers themselves, who will be able to supply the necessary warm response. The illustrations which record the baby’s varied play of expression and reaction have the air of being scrupulously copied from photographs or, perhaps, scrupulously copied from life with the aid of photographs. The process works quite well for the baby itself, less well for the domestic scenes. The masterpieces of this kind of art are those of natural history and botanical illustration, and many of them are wonders; but the difficulties increase with the treatment of larger creatures; and to keep any hint of taxidermy at bay while retaining a high degree of precision calls for serious control of disposition, colour and lighting. To know that it can be done we have only to look at (say) Caravaggio or Ford Madox Brown; but most of us who want to tell stories have to settle for some kind of compromise.
Lively and convincing
Rather a good form of compromise (if compromise it is ) is to be found in two books by Niki Daly. The illustrations have a straightforward air about them – the people in them have proportions very much like life, shadows are cast in a natural way – and the stories are pretty straightforward too. In The Boy on the Beach the two parents and their son arrive at the beach, in due course the youngster goes off to explore, gets lost, is discovered by the lifeguard and returned to his parents. And yet all the time the author/artist is in charge of what he is about. The pictures have a broad, open-air, breezy feel to them. At the end the boy writes his name in the sand and we know it at last; and on the very last page the tide is coming in and washing it away.
In Jamela’s Dress, the same way of drawing deals with rather different subject matter, noting the details of everyday South African life, and though it is to rather more comic effect than The Boy on the Beach, the characters are similarly lively and convincing. It might be possible to call this kind of work unpretentious, middle-of-the-road; but why aren’t there more people in the middle of the road doing it? Perhaps it is harder than it looks?
But to return to the animals. It does seem sometimes that the organisers of the Kate Greenaway medal are bent on eroding the credibility of the award. At any rate last year they decided that the best thing for them to do to extend knowledge and to promote the cause of quality in children’s books would be to give the medal to the same person that they had given it to only a few years before. Saying this is not an attempt on my part to call into question the merits of that recipient; but wouldn’t an alert jury have taken the opportunity of drawing attention to Queenie the Bantam and the excellent Bob Graham? Perhaps the present book, Buffy: an Adventure Story, isn’t the very best Bob Graham – a number of the earlier scenes, like the talented little dog who is the hero getting kicked out of the stage door of the theatre, are treated in a family stereotypical comic-book style – but it is very enjoyable all the same. And the true pure experience that one can expect from the creator of Crusher is Coming and other masterworks eventually arrives at the meeting of Buffy and the little girl, Mary Kelly. There is a giant heart radiating around them, but somehow the feeling is conveyed to us already.
Polar bears and seals
Polar bears are fascinating both because of the coherence and proportion of their large sculptured forms – those huge paws, those narrow wedge-like heads – and because of the desolate landscape in which they live. There are two books here about polar bears, both worthy of their subject and not dissimilar in their virtues. Michael Murpurgo’s The Rainbow Bear is the more humanised of the two, but then he has to think some quite poetical thoughts. Michael Foreman brings off a variety of effects, both of the wide vacancies of the arctic landscape and of the skyscrapered city and of the activities of the bear itself. There is one very striking picture of the bear in the water seen from below where subject and technique match perfectly. You really need to know your way with watercolour to be able to do that.
Arctic Song by Miriam Moss and Adrienne Kennaway also has a poetic idea, but uses it in the cause of information. The two bear cubs in their search for whale song make a tour of the other arctic creatures, all depicted in a manner which is confident, clear and dramatic. Both these books are distinguished by a strongly rhythmic text; both imaginative and informative, words and images hold a satisfying balance.
Finally the book that seems to me to give the most private and individual experience among the works I have mentioned. Selkie uses the traditional idea of the seal inhabited by a girl who at certain times emerges from her seal skin and can be seen by humans. A gleaming seal’s head, alert with life dominates the book’s cover. It is on the cover also where there is the only discordant note: the single word title in a silver ribbon-like lettering which, though no doubt kindly meant on the part of the publisher, would seem to have more to do with chocolates or silk stockings and which doesn’t at all suggest the intensity of this curious book. In many ways – its careful working, its decorated borders, its hint of something like naivety – this might almost be a nineteenth-century work. There’s something reminiscent of the fairyland illustrations of Dicky Doyle; and there’s no attempt to turn the young hero into anything like a self-conscious television-watching child of the present time. We are told that Gillian McClure based her illustrations on the experience of visits to the island of Colonsay. Whatever spirit informs them, they seem full of the sense of another time and another place; an experience genuinely created and preserved.
Quentin Blake is the illustrator of, amongst many others, the books of Roald Dahl. His own books have won the Whitbread Award and the Kate Greenaway Medal. He was Head of the Illustration Department of the Royal College of Art from 1978-1986.
The Selfish Crocodile, Faustin Charles, ill. Mike Terry, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3857 3, £9.99
Whadayamean, John Burningham, Jonathan Cape, 0 224 04753 1, £9.99
The Tale of the Heaven Tree, Mary Joslin, ill. Milo So, Lion Publishing, 0 7459 3957 0, £10.99
And If the Moon Could Talk, Kate Banks, ill. Georg Hallensleben, Andersen Press, 0 86264 869 6, £9.99
What if?, Joanna Walsh, Jonathan Cape, 0 224 04752 3, £9.99
I Want a Pet, Lauren Child, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1212 0, £9.99
The Photo, Neal Layton, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 3546 9, £9.99
New Born, Kathy Henderson, ill. Caroline Binch, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1262 7, £9.99
The Boy on the Beach, Niki Daly, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 4134 5, £9.99
Jamela’s Dress, Niki Daly, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1347 X, £9.99
Queenie the Bantam, Bob Graham, Walker, 0 7445 5519 1, £9.99
Buffy: an Adventure Story, Bob Graham, Walker, 0 7445 6192 2, £9.99
The Rainbow Bear, Michael Murpurgo, ill. Michael Foreman, Doubleday, 0 385 40984 2, £9.99
Arctic Song, Miriam Moss, ill. Adrienne Kennaway, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1326 7, £10.99
Selkie, Gillian McClure, Doubleday, 0 385 41013 1, £9.99