Despite concerns for the growth of picture books which is being hit by increasing competition in the coedition market, strong titles continue to appear. One of the ways that the picture book market has been expanding in recent years is in the proliferation of titles which are sophisticated both in terms of artwork and content and whose appeal is to older readers as well as the very young. Rosemary Stones discusses recent examples.
Shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal last year with her second book, The Pea and the Princess , Mini Grey is clearly bursting with ideas. A boy’s present on Christmas day, the eponymous hero of Traction Man Is Here (not a million miles away from an Action Man doll) swings into action rescuing Dollies from Wicked Professor Spade and farm animals from the Evil Pillows. A macho change of costume is needed for each dangerous mission (from Sub-Aqua Suit to Battle Pants and Warfare Shirt) and testosterone rules – until the family arrive at Granny’s house where Traction Man’s Christmas present turns out to be an all-in-one knitted green romper suit and matching bonnet. How Traction Man ingeniously recovers his dignity is told with a breathless combination of cartoon, caricature and exaggeration matched against his young owner’s commentary on Traction Man’s adventures. This is a book full of drama, suspense and wit that sure-footedly enters the imaginative world of boys.
First person narratives
John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell’s Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner? is a deadpan account by Horace Pork-Fowler (a pig) of the weekend he and his wife spend at Eatem Hall at the invitation of a Dr Hunter. Told to expect ‘free gourmet food’ Pork-Fowler’s appetite is so awakened that he ignores his wife’s misgivings and the many clues in their host’s spooky mansion as to his real identity. After eating their way through lots of ‘wonderful non-stop food’ (including a nocturnal raid on the fridge) the couple depart, still oblivious to the fate that Dr Hunter had planned for them – saved in fact because they have eaten so much that they inadvertently break the construction that was supposed to trap and cook them… Kelly’s painterly illustrations are Hitchcockian in their sinister detail and brooding atmosphere and contrast amusingly with the greedy gullibility of the Pork-Fowlers.
The text of Nick Butterworth’s The Whisperer is also a first person narrative, this time told by a rat in mean city streets who takes pleasure in the warfare between two rival gangs of cats (one with orange fur and one with black and white fur) since their attention is distracted from hunting him. Then the rat, to his horror, comes upon a love scene conducted between a young cat from each gang. How can he sabotage this romance? In this delightful version of Romeo and Juliet , Butterworth abandons his usual white backgrounds, setting panels of illustration against black with the text reversed out, creating a moody setting for his tale of urban strife.
For some children it can come as a surprise that there are people who speak languages other than their own. Garry Parsons’ cheerful Krong! has an alien and an alien dog landing their spaceship in Carl’s garden. Carl and his dog Armando try ‘Hello’ and ‘Woof’ respectively without success, then at mum and dad’s suggestion he and Armando try French, Spanish and Japanese – still without success. Children will be greatly amused to discover the French, Spanish and Japanese for woof (‘ouah’, ‘guau’ and ‘wan’). There is a wonderful twist to the denouement that I won’t reveal but children will love it as they will enjoy Parsons’ bold, rather 50s style cartoon illustrations.
Language also takes centre stage in Margaret Atwood and Dušan Petri?i?’s Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes . The clue is in the title as Atwood’s conceit is to tell her tale using words beginning with ‘r’ so far as is possible. After several pages of this (‘Residing with Rude Ramsay, who was red-haired, were his revolting relatives, Ron, Rollo, and Ruby. They were rotund but robust, and when not regaling themselves with rum, they relaxed in their recliners, replaying reams of retro rock ’n’ roll records relentlessly.’) any rapport with the récit was repelled for this reader and RSI ruled. Petri?i?’s artwork does its best in the circumstances.
Oliver Jeffers’ first book, How to Catch a Star , was featured in BfK ’s New Talent spot ( BfK No 147) as the exceptional debut it was. His minimalist artwork style, with its expressive handling of wash, has an East European flavour although it is all his own. In Lost and Found he again features his rather waif-like hero with his sundial face and two sticks for legs. This time the boy finds a penguin and concludes that it must be lost. The penguin is mute yet a bond begins to develop between the two. The boy decides to return him to the South Pole and it is only when he has left him there that he realises his mistake. One of the most poignant scenes is the one where the penguin watches the boy floating away from him – daringly, Jeffers gives us a back view of the penguin clutching his umbrella as he watches the boy in his little boat wave goodbye and we feel the suffering of this stocky little figure. Jeffers then shows us in a dramatic action sequence of pictures of the boy thinking, how a shift in his understanding of what is important between him and the penguin takes place. Again, the clue is in the title – penguin may be lost but he will be found again. This is a deeply satisfying book that will appeal to children of all ages.
There is more sea in Chris Wormell’s The Sea Monster in which this benign barnacled creature lurks in the ocean’s depths or, camouflaged amongst the rocks, watches the people on the beach. When a boy gets caught in the current trying to retrieve his toy boat, a mysterious rock appears to which he can cling until help arrives. Wormell’s seascape is a place of dramatic light and shade both below and above water achieved in bold washes that convey the drama of the action. This lovely book also works at a deep emotional level – perhaps we’d all love to have our own sea monster.
Rosemary Stones is Editor of Books for Keeps .
Traction Man Is Here , Mini Grey, Cape, 0 224 06495 9, £10.99 hbk
Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner? John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell, Templar, 1 84011 628 5, £9.99 hbk
The Whisperer , Nick Butterworth, HarperCollins, 0 00 712017 6, £10.99 hbk
Krong! Garry Parsons, Bodley Head, 0 370 32848 5, £10.99 hbk
Rude Ramsay and the Roaring Radishes , Margaret Atwood, ill. Dušan Petri?i?, Bloomsbury, 0 7475 7292 5, £10.99 hbk
Lost and Found , Oliver Jeffers, HarperCollins, 0 00 715035 0, £10.99 hbk (Sept 2005)
The Sea Monster , Chris Wormell, Cape, 0 224 07025 8, £10.99 hbk