Jeff Hynds, with a little help from his young friends, assesses this year’s Spring picture books.
I remember, at a parents’ evening a few years ago, someone said to me: `Are you showing us the books you like, or the books children like?’ It’s a difficult question – far too difficult for me to tackle here. For a start I’d have to discuss ponderous matters like the Cox Report’s main, and virtually only, criterion for selecting books: `they should be capable of interpretation at a number of different levels’ (7.12). And, then again, I’d have to consider what these `levels’ are supposed to mean, and indeed whether there’s not a great deal more to it than `levels’. In the end, of course, I can only choose the books I like and hope children will like them too. Still, it does no harm to get an opinion from the actual customers sometimes, so I thought I’d ask a few children to help me. Would we all like the same ones? And how would we get on with those levels? Not too well, to begin with…
The Wolfman and the Clown
Helen Ganly, Deutsch, 0 233 98504 2, £5.95
A group of children have seen strange happenings through the window of the house, and they run to tell Mrs Ray, a neighbour. They’ve seen a ‘wolfman’ and a `clown’ and heard `weird wailings and moanings’. We can look, too, through windows cut out from the pages and there, sure enough, are the wolfman and the clown whirling round in the middle of a room. A passing policewoman dismisses all this as a figment of the children’s imagination, and says they’ve probably frightened old Mr Kelly, who lives entirely alone, by peering in through his window. So Mrs Ray takes the children to apologise to him. Mr Kelly was evidently once connected with the theatre and shows the children, to their delight, old photographs and posters, and lets them dress up in theatrical costumes. The children, by now, seem to have forgotten the mysterious wolfman and clown, but Mrs Ray remains ‘thoughtful’.
My young helpers were excited by this beautifully illustrated picture book and found it `a scary story’. I very much enjoyed it too, and also sensed the uneasiness. But with the advantage of my National-Curriculum-level consciousness, I was soon able to see that this was really a book about growing up, and about learning to trust adults or, moving up a few levels, about the contract between uncontrolled childish imagination, and the more sophisticated imaginative creations of the theatre. Given time I might have managed even more! But then I found out. The book is actuallyabout the struggles of the dissident movement in pre-liberation Czechoslovakia! If you were familiar with all the symbolism and other indications in the book you’d be able to interpret at the right level straightaway, otherwise you need explanatory notes to work it all out. President Vaclev Havel, in short, would have the advantage of us. (He is in the book, incidentally, along with many associates.) It is thus highly esoteric, a bit like reading T S Eliot or James Joyce. What price our levels now? Well, not completely daft, for we did know there was something going on. It was `scary’ even if we weren’t sure why. This is because a book like this can `communicate before it is understood’ (to use Eliot’s own words). But this is certainly an unusual picture book where there’s plenty to read, look at, feel and think about. And it repays study. Satisfaction grows as you learn more. Did I mention James Joyce…
The Cat and the Devil
James Joyce, ill. Roger Blachon, Moonlight, 1 85103 0913, £6.95; 185103 092 1, £3.50 pbk
Joyce wrote this story in 1936 for his four-year-old grandson, Stephen Joyce,whose recent interesting letter accompanies this new version, with illustrations by the French artist, Roger Blachon. The story is, in fact, set in France, in Beaugency, where the Mayor enters into a pact with the Devil, and then gets the better of him by a sly trick. A seemingly simple tale, though full of Joycean innuendo. Some familiarity with the other works of one of the towering literary figures of the twentieth century would help you with your levels here, but this didn’t bother my team. They, and I, had more trouble with the Devil’s bad French (and strong Dublin accent).
The Ducks’ Tale
Dave and Julie Saunders, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0608 2, £2.99 pbk
So Slow Sloth
Charles Fuge, Macmillan, 0 333 51705 9, £5.95
Why Can’t I Fly?
Ken Brown, Andersen, 0 86264 263 9, £5.95
Steven Kellogg, Macmillan, 0 333 51866 7, £5.95
Mrs Goat and her seven little kids
Tony Ross, Andersen, 0 86264 253 1, £5.95
Peter and Cat
Sumiko, Heinemann, 0 434 96543 X, £6.95
More cats and other animals in these stories all of which have a twist in the tale, or alternatively tail. In The Ducks’ Tale, it’s a cat’s tail (if you see what I mean) that causes the problem. Striking paintings by Dave Saunders in this book, and by Charles Fuge and Ken Brown in So Slow Sloth and Why Can’t I Fly?, counterpoint admirably the `try, try again’ themes common to these three books. For all his slowness, Sloth ultimately achieves success, and in Why Can’t I Fly? Ostrich too does eventually manage it, or so it seems, but my young panel were unanimous in believing he’d be quite upset if he knew what had really happened. Obviously I must have been on a different level, because this hadn’t occurred to me. So maybe Ken Brown, in this his first picture book, needed to show the same sensitivity towards the ostrich’s feelings as he clearly does towards the African landscape, which he depicts in radiant watercolours.
We’re all fans of Pinkerton, that incorrigible Great Dane puppy, and here is yet another adventure. In Prehistoric Pinkerton we have Pinkerton teething, with a dinosaur or two thrown in, and the result is a form of mayhem that only Pinkerton can achieve. Kellogg’s drawings, and dialogue, are as witty and irresistible as ever. Something of the same irreverence regularly pervades the work of Tony Ross. His latest, Mrs Goat and her seven little kids is an outrageous parody of a traditional folk tale, as you would have doubtless guessed from the awful pun in the title. I thought it hilarious – the illustrations are truly madcap – but my young assistants were a trifle lukewarm. At their level they didn’t care for all the gobbling up and spitting out. I suppose I’m more used to it.
With Peter and Cat we’re back to cats, or rather to just one cat in an otherwise human world. Peter tires of his idyllic life with Cat and seeks his fate, as well as a travelling child called Laura, `in the town that lies beyond the hills’. At one level this is a touching love story, simply told and charmingly illustrated.
At another level it’s a journey to self-discovery. (I’m getting quite good at these levels.) We’re really into journeys with the next batch…
Amanda Loverseed, Blackie, 0 216 92781 1, £6.95
David Day, ill. Mark Entwisle, Piccadilly, 185340 059 9, £8.95
The Turtle and the Island
Barbara Ker Wilson, ill. Frane Lessac, Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0624 4, £6.95
The Frog Prince
Jan Ormerod and David Lloyd, ill. Jan Ormerod, Walker, 0 7445 1287 5, £6.95
Geoffrey Patterson, Deutsch, 0 233 98406 2, £5.95
These are all very attractive retellings of traditional tales. Tikkatoo’s Journey is based on an Eskimo folk tale, in which Tikkatoo volunteers for a dangerous journey to save his dying grandfather. Negotiating many perils, he finally succeeds. This is Amanda Loverseed’s first book, which she’s illustrated beautifully. Indeed, all the books in this section are notable for the quality of their illustrations. The Sleeper, from an ancient Chinese legend about a monk whose lone journey saves his country from self-destruction (would China had such another!), is sumptuously illustrated in dramatic colour washes. The bright `primitive’ paintings of The Turtle and the Island are a perfect complement to this Papuan folk tale about the creation of New Guinea. Award-winning Jan Ormerod illustrates the tale of The Frog Prince (first recorded by the Brothers Grimm) in Art Nouveau style, and in Borrowed Plumes award-winning Geoffrey Patterson has produced a richly textured set of paintings to accompany the fable, from Aesop, of the dissembling jackdaw. We enjoyed all these books, so artistically made, and so full of levels that National Curriculum buffs could have a field day.
Look Out, Patrick!
Paul Geraghty, Hutchinson, 0 09 174035 5, £6.95
Meet Me at the Eiffel Tower
Elzbieta, Faber, 0 571 14303 2, £7.99
Once Upon a Time: A Prince’s Fantastic Journey
Graham Oakley, Macmillan, 0 333 51532 3, £6.95
Three more journeys, all very comical. Mind, Patrick the mouse is only strolling home in Look Out, Patrick! but it is a stroll like Rosie’s Walk. Danger threatens his every step, though he is all oblivious; on each occasion it’s only averted by some coincidental happening. Tickle-Sparkle and Chickadee undertake a longer journey in Meet Me at the Eiffel Tower and at one stage get lost. This spacious picture book has engaging childlike illustrations. `I like the big all-together pictures,’ said our five-year-old group member. But the really spectacular journey is that of the (faintly familiar?) prince in Graham Oakley’s latest offering, Once Upon a Time. Undertaking a quest, reminiscent of Henry’s in Oakley’s earlier Henry’s Quest, the prince sets out with his page (who is also the narrator), to prove that he’s clever and brave, and at the same time to find himself a future queen. The world he enters is the eternal world of fairy tale. They become entangled in six or seven of them, before returning in unexpected triumph to the royal palace. The whole thing is skilfully woven together and, as any devotee of the `Church Mice’ books would expect, cleverly tongue in cheek. It’s a true picture book, too, in spite of having over 3,000 words of text, for much of the action, and many of the jokes, are in the carefully detailed illustrations themselves. There are lots of levels in the pictures here, in more ways than one, as you will see.
The Hidden House
Martin Waddell, ill. Angela Barrett, Walker, 0 7445 1266 2, £7.95
A Close Call
Amanda Harvey, Macmillan, 0 333 523881, £5.95
In these books, both by award-winning authors, there’s a more serious tone. My young team thought them `a bit creepy’. With The Hidden House it’s hard to say why, for it’s a touching story, very elegantly illustrated in browns and greens. Sombre, perhaps.
A Close Call, however, is quite frightening, and reminded us of Sendak’s Outside Over There. It similarly involves the stealing of a baby, in this case while the nurse sleeps. Did she only dream it? Perhaps. These are powerful books, handling the themes of death and regeneration – to die, to sleep, perchance to dream. Indeed, it is to dreams we turn next.
Alan Baker, Deutsch, 0 233 98438 0, £5.50
Rob Shepperson, Andersen, 0 862624 265 5, £6.95
These may be dreams, but they’re full of action and colour and illustrations of the highest quality. There are interesting parallels (and a few levels) in the stories too, like the elaborate sandcastle construction. Both books invite young readers to re-read. I’ve already lost count of the number of times our five-year-old has perused Goodnight, William. She can easily read it independently herself now, though she’s not supposed to be able to read yet. (At school she’s on Ginn pre-reading.) The Sandman is a triumphant picture book debut for Rob Shepperson. From dreams to harsh reality!
The World that Jack Built
Ruth Brown, Andersen, 0 86264 269 8, £5.95
Ruth Brown is a wonderful artist who produces gentle, delicate picture books for the very young. Now here’s a truly savage book from her about the destruction of the environment. My young readers were rather shocked. But if I were one of those competition judges I’d award this book top marks for content, artistic impression and anything else going. It has so many qualities in addition to the powerful paintings, for example the intelligently adapted wording of the nursery rhyme, the ironic motif of the black cat and the symbolism of the blue butterfly (cat and butterfly are on every page), and the coherent artistry of the whole. I think this is Ruth Brown’s best book so far.
The Jacket I Wear in the Snow
Shirley Neitzel, ill. Nancy Winslow Parker, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 442 6, £5.95
It’s a Perfect Day
Abigail Pizer, Macmillan, 0 333 51450 5, £5.95
The Calypso Alphabet
John Agard, ill. Jennifer Bent, Collins, 0 00 191312 3, £5.95
Wherever Can I Be?
Mike Dickinson, Deutsch, 0 233 98402X, £5.50
Houdini the Disappearing Hamster
Terence Blacker, ill. Pippa Unwin, Andersen, 0 86264 250 7, £5.95
Here’s a collection of jolly books! The Jacket I Wear in the Snow and It’s a Perfect Day are both cumulative texts which would appeal to the youngest of children. The latter is not unlike Pat Hutchins’ Good-Night Owl! though it lacks her ingenious ending. I’m not a particular fan of alphabet books, but the poet John Agard’s Calypso Alphabet has converted me! It’s a riot of Caribbean words and colour. We had lots of fun with Wherever Can I Be? and Houdini the Disappearing Hamster. You have to search each picture to find the missing creature. In Houdini’s case this is quite hard. These are not just frivolous games, but artistically constructed books with linking story and witty observation. They are the 1990 descendants of But Where is the Green Parrot? which first appeared an almost unbelievable 25 years ago.
Barrie Wade, ill. Katinka Kew, Deutsch, 0 233 98409 7, £5.95
lolette Thomas, ill. Jennifer Northway, Deutsch, 0 233 984216, £5.95
Juanita Havill, ill. Anne Sibley O’Brien, Heinemann, 0 434 94211 1, £6.95
Andrew and Diana Davies, ill. Paul Dowling, Methuen, 0 416 15122 1, £6.95
Ruby and the Dragon
Gareth Owen, ill. Bob Wilson, Collins, 0 00 195406 7, £4.95
Books with girls, positively portrayed as central protagonists, are rare enough. Books with black girls in the leading roles are even rarer. These five are therefore particularly welcome. They’re all well illustrated, attractively presented and enjoyable books, and each one has a pertinent underlying message of one kind or another. The first three offer well-observed comment on family relationships, but our favourites were Poonam’s Pets and Ruby and the Dragon, both in school, rather than family, settings. Poonam is the classic `mouse that roared’ and has unsuspected depths to say the least. Ruby, too, is the unlikely leading character (in every respect) in Gareth Owen’s cartoon-style picture book about the school play at St George’s Primary. I found myself laughing out loud as I read it. In fact we all did. (I did wonder what level laughing out loud would be.)
A Robot Named Chip
Philippe Dupasquier, Andersen, 0 86264 266 3, £6.95
The Incredible Bed
Bill Tidy, Andersen, 0 86264 268 X, £5.95
The Magic Lavatory
Nicholas Allan, Hutchinson, 0 09 174154 8, £6.50
Three more excellent cartoon books involving respectively science-fiction, dream-fantasy and a mobile lavatory. Dupasquier, famous for many superb picture books, here goes galactic; Bill Tidy, popular television personality, devises his own version of the flying bedstead; Nicholas Allan, not known at all, cocks a snook (or something) at good taste and emerges flushed with success, though after this he’ll probably remain unknown for ever. Lavatory humour, of course, is at a very low level. Plumbs the depths, usually.
Is that you, George?
Kate Oliver, Blackie, 0 216 92784 6, £6.95
Eddie and Teddy
Gus Clarke, Andersen, 0 86264 285 X, £5.95
Abigail Goes Visiting
Felix Pirani, ill. Christine Roche, Collins, 0 00 1911368 9, £5.95
Three most agreeable books that toy with the line between fantasy and reality to make serious points about family life. Is that you, George? and Eddie and Teddy are variations on the Not Now, Bernard theme (it didn’t really happen, did it?) while Abigail Goes Visiting is a real enigma variation. We all thought we `got’ the first two, hopefully at more than one level, but we’re still arguing about Abigail. I may send it to the Cox Committee.
I’ve selected these books from the scores that I and my young helpers looked at. Inevitably, I have had to leave out some that I would have liked to include. There are certainly many outstanding books this year, with particularly good offerings from Andersen Press and Andre Deutsch. If there is a fault, it’s that sometimes an otherwise excellently illustrated and designed book can be marred by a banal and even babyish text, making it seem false and patronizing. Children neither want nor need childish stories in childish words, even in picture books. I haven’t included any such in this selection. But I have left out some good ones. So finally, as examples of the rich field I’ve left ungarnered, let me mention Never Say Macbeth (Charles and Sheila Front, Deutsch, 0 233 98454 2, £5.95), a fine foray into the Edwardian theatre – lots to learn about here; The Shepherd Boy (Kim Lewis, Walker, 0 7445 1502 5, £7.95) – warm and touching with stunning pictures; and Gorilla/Chinchilla Bert Kitchen, Cape, 0 224 02782 4, £6.95) – strange animals, quirky rhymes and outstanding art work. Last of all, I must quote the words of the writer Ann Pilling (author of the award-winning Henry’s Leg). She has just tried her hand at a picture book called The Donkey’s Day Out (ill. Sheila Ratcliffe, Lion, 0 7459 1618 X, £5.99). It is, as you might have guessed, about a donkey. At one level, that is. At another level it’s an allegory of the Easter story. Of it Ann Pilling writes:
‘If a story is going to have lasting
it has to have additional levels like
even if the reader isn’t aware of
Professor Cox didn’t say anything about not being aware of them. The wolfman and the clown did, though.
Jeff Hynds is a major figure in the movement to promote ‘real’ reading. After retiring from Thames Polytechnic in South London, where he ran a famous reading course, he began a new career as a freelance lecturer and is now much in demand for in-service work with teachers all over Britain.