Stephanie Nettell assesses the Spring lists
Today, any kids confronting the Pic-’n-Choose counter for picture books are lucky indeed. What a range of de-luxe confections, what top quality ingredients, what bright colours, what a variety of flavours! Where to start?
There’ll be books for the absolute youngest, of course. Cock-a-doodle-doo by Steve Lavis (Ragged Bears, 1 85714 088 5, £8.99) is a counting book with the usual quota of farmyard noises, but they’re in huge bold print that bounds in and out of the exuberantly fluid animal portraits, above one clean line of rhythmic (not rhyming) text, climaxing in a glorious jumble waiting to be uncounted. BIG FISH, little fish by Alan Durant and Ant Parker (Macmillan, 0 333 63337 7, £7.99) plays with proportions using font sizes, unfolding pages and crisp, uncluttered, wildly bright drawings – their jokey style deliberately shuns subtlety, while their message is itself nicely subtle.
Anna Currey’s Tickling Tigers (Hodder, 0 340 66112 7, £9.99; 0 340 63635 1, £4.99 pbk) packs all sorts of subtlety into both her drawings and her story of how a boastful jungle mouse has his bluff called and, wholly undeservedly, emerges a hero. Lively emotions are magically sketched with a line here, a smudge there: tigers seem to be in this year, but hers were the ones that captured my heart. The soppiness – surprise kittens, aa-aah – lurking on the edges of This and That by Julie Sykes (Magi, 1 85430 131 4, £3.99) is kept at bay, like Cat’s nosy companions, by her repeating the smugly uninformative answer, ‘This and that’, and especially by the roguish humour of Tanya Linch’s collage-like illustrations.
Then there’s reassuring solutions to the worries of everyday life, with a familiar baby character to identify with. Ian Beck’s highly personal style lights up the simplicity of his little stories, with gentle refrains, about a small girl who seems to live alone with her dog (and whose hair is always alarmingly storm-tossed, even in bed) in Poppy and Pip’s Bedtime (0 00 198150 1, 0 00 664541 0 pbk) and Poppy and Pip’s Walk (0 00 198149 8, 0 00 664540 2 pbk) both from Collins at £6.99 hbk and £3.99 pbk. Ellen (who’s the striking image of her mum) has Penguin as a companion and his emotions uncannily mirror her own when a new brother proves such a pain. Penguin, however, manages to cheer the baby up, and I must say, I’ve fallen for him myself. More Penguin please, although Clara Vulliamy’s rich watercolours for Ellen and Penguin and the New Baby (Walker, 0 7445 3431 9, £8.99) ironically do make the text seem pale. Little Bean by John Wallace (Collins, 0 00 198182 X, £7.99) is a paean to the power of the book, of sharing a story. Simple (no dramatic spreads here), idiosyncratic and touching, there won’t be a dry eye in the house as Daddy finally makes time in his busy, busy life to buy and read a bedtime sequel for his Little Bean.
But the best of all these homelife portraits are the Frances stories by the Hobans – after 30-odd years! I was thrilled to see the five of them again: Best Friends for Frances (0 224 04601 2), Bedtime for Frances (0 224 04661 6), A Birthday for Frances (0 241 04621 7), A Baby Sister for Frances (0 224 04611 X) and Bread and Jam for Frances (0 224 04591 1) from Cape at £9.99 each. But how would they fare, with their longer texts, sophisticated teasing and a few pastel crayons, against today’s glories, the bright young artists and short easy stories? They may not be visually dazzling, but for affection and wit, wisdom, observation and loving warmth, the pairing of Russell Hoban’s words and Lillian’s expressive little badgers remains unbeatable.
The perfectly named Mr Davies is a Scottie, who’s too energetic and friendly for his own good. Charlotte Voake’s Mr Davies and the Baby (Walker, 0 7445 2525 X, £8.99), with its hand-scripted story and jolly sketches, has the fresh feel of a manuscript, and tells a cleverly simple story involving, but not centring on, a baby in a pushchair. And there’s a deliciously shattering climax. Surprise babies, this time chicks, are again the denouement in The Little White Hen (Scholastic, 0 590 54208 7, £9.99), but Philippa Pearce’s gentle and experienced storytelling with Gillian McClure’s fertile evocation of a hillside farm in spring give the story a special atmosphere. Animals and plants spill out of the frames, and the air is thick with expectancy.
Throughout Kip (Julia MacRae, 1 85681 592 7, £8.99) Benedict Blathwayt employs the film technique of eye-in-the-sky, instantly graspable by today’s telly-babies. We immediately home in over the hills to a farm and a yard and a kennel, where Kip is waiting to start his day, we pan and zoom, draw back and close in through all the furious action, and soar away up again after he’s gone to bed. With just the occasional speech bubble, it’s another of Blathwayt’s opportunities for us to tell our own story, with delicately drawn wildlife as well as events to pore over. Cinematic techniques, too, are brilliantly exploited in Top Secret – Don’t Breathe a Word (Scholastic, 0 590 54217 6, £9.99), where Ted Dewan explores odd angles and scale from the viewpoint of his strange little blobby-faced creatures as they embark on a night-time thriller, armed with the latest technology. The suspense relaxes into humour as the crack team’s target is revealed (a tooth, but don’t say I told you).
Even the very young appreciate an inside joke, a touch of wit or farce, some baby sophistication – and for a reviewer it’s like a G & T after a long day. John Prater’s Once Upon a Picnic (Walker, 0 7445 4414 9, £8.99) is a delight. Only the reader is in the know about what’s really happening – the central small boy half-guesses, but dozy Mum and Dad are right out of it. A familiar notion about nursery characters turning up in real life is treated with panache, each intriguing spread adding to the joke and hinting at what’s to come, so that it’s a pleasure to go back to the beginning and recapture the clues. The same frisson of being one up on the characters adds to the ‘It’s behind you!’ joke that builds into the furious chase of Scared of a Bear (Hodder, 0 340 62683 6, £9.99; 0 340 65350 7, £4.99 pbk), another superb bit of fun from Hilda Offen. The Pet Person comes from a couple of old-handers at this game, and is a wonderfully daft inversion of the lonely-child-forbidden-to-have-a-pet theme. ‘Barking by Jeanne Willis, Scratching by Tony Ross, Taken for Walkies by Andersen Press’ – say no more. (Except 0 86264 666 9, £8.99, published in June.)
Beneath David Macaulay’s few plain words and burlesque pictures lies a challenging puzzle, demanding logic, deduction and detection. Perhaps only over-sixes will catch the true relish of Shortcut (Dorling Kindersley, 0 7513 7036 3, £9.99) by themselves, with its cross-references and necessary back-tracking, but once kids get the idea they’ll find it hugely satisfying, and may even be able to see their own day in a different light. The Megamogs and the Dangerous Doughnut (Bodley Head, 0 370 32480 3, £9.99) is much more than an ebullient cartoon: Peter Haswell’s spreads are imaginatively laid out, his Searle-like cat gang speak in marvellously inventive language, slyly packed with rhymes and rhythm, and there’s a wealth of small satirical detail. It’s grand entertainment for any age.
Now two treasures, where language and pictures are brilliant enough in their own right, but together make a special product. I was hugely taken with James and the Rain (Hodder, 0 340 66759 8, £9.99; 0 340 66751 6, £4.99 pbk); Karla Kuskin plays affectionately with words, her verse capturing listeners (pre-readers will love it as a counting book, so too will any under-nine) with repetition and metre, surprise and humour. She’s a modern A A Milne, partnered by Reg Cartwright as skilful as ever, his sturdy birds and animals marching with a yellow-sou’westered James ecstatically through the rain. Roy Gerrard seems indefatigable – verbally and visually. Once again, in Wagons West! (Gollancz, 0 575 06094 8, £8.99), his is that rare offering, a picture book for older readers. His strange little folk, as if tapped down by a giant hammer, are this time pioneers facing danger and privation before finding paradise. Their story is told by the girl-hero as a country and western ballad you could barn-dance to, with pictures so rich in action and social and wildlife detail they’ll never pall.
An old-fashioned story, not just a slice of life, a moral or a joke, is not as common as you’d expect. Joyce Dunbar’s Indigo and the Whale (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 1023 3, £9.99) has all the eternal feel of a fairy tale, replete with allegory, magic and redemption; it tells of saving the world, and of a battle between ‘useful’ skills and ‘useless’ talent. Geoffrey Patterson’s sweeping paintings are thick with hot tropical colours – but surely not, as the press blurb says, those of the Mediterranean? We have the original article in Searle-cats for Lee Wardlaw’s The Tales of Grandpa Cat (Pavilion, 1 85793 751 1, £8.99); there’s no clue about when Searle painted them, but they burst with youthful joie de vivre and cheerful malice, matching exactly these tongue-in-cheek tall tales about the exploits of an apparently doddery generation.
No one other than David McKee could know how to bring together the words and pictures that his own quirkily surreal vision of life throws up. There’s a nice black humour to Charlotte’s Piggy Bank (Andersen, 0 86264 700 2, £8.99) that matches the odd perspectives, internal gags (I Hate My Teddy Bear reprise) and running jokes (a developing lonely hearts romance) of his busy full spreads. Charlotte seems to live, like McKee, in a south of France resort bubbling with tourists, lovers, punks, pickpockets and (to my evil-minded eye) ladies of the street. There’s a whole world going about its business quite outside the jovially jaundiced little story, and observant youngsters will revel in it.
Speaking of quirky… Sara Fanelli has got to be a one-off. She’s now come up with My Map Book (ABC, 1 85406 225 5, £8.95), an interactive drawing book that’s anarchic and stimulating, and in such an authentic infant-school style that it is surely bound to prompt its young readers into imitation (even on the page itself). Who else could have drawn a map of their day, their tummy or their dog as well as their bedroom? For older imaginations, but with a high quirkiness quotient, comes Marian and Ruth Waller’s The Leaping Llama Carpet from Australia. It’s totally gorgeous. It fools around with alliteration and rhyme, crazy typesetting, innovative design and magical notions; it’s funny, exciting and mysterious, rich, beautiful and captivating. I’d be pushed to explain the story – how dream llamas woven into a carpet defeat its thieves – but, I do believe, this one’s my favourite book (Allen & Unwin/Little Ark, distributed by Ragged Bears, 1 86373 958 0, £9.99).
It is the personal stamp of the artist that marks each of the next three. There’s something of the ‘policemen getting younger’ syndrome about my surprise at how Charles Fuge has become such a recognisable part of the picture book scene. His illustrations for James Riordan’s retelling of Grimms’ The Barnyard Band (Macmillan, 0 333 62099 2, £7.99; 0 333 64758 0, £3.99 pbk) turn it into a sophisticated animated film in intense colour, full of shadows and grotesquerie, powerful and with a brutal edge to its humour. Enormously impressive and visually educative, but perhaps not very likeable. There’s a similar intensity in Ruth Brown’s painting, but also a lushness and a poetically heightened reality that softens it for popular consumption. Even her horridly warty toad, stalked by a scaly reptile of dinosaur proportions as he lurks in his slimy pool, and described with a spectacular collection of loathsome adjectives, is somehow not really repulsive. The colours of The Tale of the Monstrous Toad (Andersen, 0 86264 702 9, £8.99) are the dank browns and fetid greens of a rampantly fertile swamp, against a sinister pale gold sky, yet still the book manages to glow attractively. I imagine Fuge would die rather than glow.
Some of Fuge’s effects with silhouettes and shadows contribute to the air of menace with which David Parkins cloaks Phyllis Root’s Aunt Nancy and Old Man Trouble (Walker, 0 7445 4002 X, £8.99), a traditional trickster except that Root has invented a laid-back old lady to outwit her sinister visitor. It’s told in a rural American drawl, and her final beam of self-satisfaction leaves a similar one on the reader’s face.
From the fantasy world into the real one. Jakki Wood’s Animal Hullabaloo (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0945 6, £8.99), ‘a wildlife noisy book’, looks at first like an ordinary, pleasant enough attempt to encourage babies to recognise animals and their calls. Then it dawns that there are an awful lot of animals, becoming more and more exotic, and their noises are surprisingly well suggested, not only onomatopoeically but in the very lettering. It proves great fun, and the back endpapers provide an indentification list. Ms MacDonald Has a Class (Bodley Head, 0 370 32360 2, £9.99) isn’t quite what it seems, either. Jan Ormerod, with her unequalled talent for bringing small figures to life, sets the whole chaotic business of an infant class putting on a performance – plans, costumes, rehearsals – the familiar song, but with such scrupulous care and detail that it will take dozens of siftings to grasp it all. A fantasy that perfectly mirrors real life.
Gollancz have a picture series portraying children’s lives in other cultures. Muhammad’s Desert Night (0 575 06291 6, £8.99; 0 575 06292 4, £3.99 pbk), in Cristina Kessler’s short, direct story set among the endangered Tuareg, is one of darkness, brilliance, heat and cold, all magnificently suggested in the vast skies and towering uncluttered dunes of Ian Schoenherr’s paintings. Together they make poetry of a kind, clean and spare. Almaz and the Lion (0 575 06215 0, £8.99; 0 575 06216 9, £4.50 pbk) by Jane Kurtz, a traditional tale adapted to show the life and manners of an Ethiopian village girl, is tender and more diffuse; Floyd Cooper’s soft-edged pastels reflect a story about love and trust. More straightforwardly educational are the ‘Discovery Flaps’ from Child’s Play, in conjunction with Oxfam (£3.99 each), unpretentiously illustrated by Annie Kubler and Caroline Formby, who make valid use of the flap for entertaining details. Food, play and transport follow the formula of Come home with us (0 85953 791 9), describing children’s homes all over the world. Conventionally neat but not at all dull.
Richard Kidd takes us for a romp through the art world, as Daisy and her dog set off on a round-the-world search for favourite things to paint in a competition. With a special kind of trompe-l’oeil we see through the eyes of five great artists as well as Daisy’s, before she returns to find them all in her bedroom. Nothing new in tucking great works of art into a picture book, but, like Daisy’s picture, Almost Famous, Daisy! (Frances Lincoln, 0 7112 0981 2, £9.99) deserves its red rosette for vivacity and exuberance.
And to finish with something for any age, even adult, the ‘Tales of Heaven and Earth’ series from Moonlight (£6.99 each) are aesthetically ambitious. Illustrated precisely and delicately, and with a wealth of exquisite miniatures decorating the borders of the text, they offer some of the great stories of the world’s religions, with explanatory notes in the margins as they go along and full-scale back-up material at the end. Children of the Moon (1 85103 192 8) uses the everyday experiences of a Yanomami boy of the Amazon to explore their beliefs and legends, and The Prince Who Became a Beggar (1 85103 208 8) more formally retells episodes from the life of the Buddha.
There. The kids have gorged themselves and learned something.