There is a vast – almost unruly – number of picture books published each year for young children, but, with so little scope for any critical discussion beyond the usual short reviews, we do sometimes seem to be in danger of taking for granted the rich diversity of the artwork, and the vigour and intensity with which some artists undertake the responsibility of introducing children to art, and the art of looking at things. Joanna Carey discusses four new and very different picture books which all have a natural history theme.
Currently, there is an astonishing variety in style and form in picture book publishing, that ranges from innovation within old traditions, to ground-breaking use of new technology but, frustratingly, we are seldom given any insight as to how the images are produced. So, one of the great things about John Lawrence’s book, This Little Chick, is his explanatory note about the engravings.
The art of wood engraving
When children’s books themselves were in their infancy, they were illustrated with woodcuts and Lawrence’s work echoes not just the boldness of the the early chap book, but also the innovative work of Thomas Bewick who, in the 18th century, brought a new finesse to the art of wood engraving. Lawrence’s illustrations are engraved on vinyl rather than wood, and in addition to the engravings, he uses watercolour washes and printed wood textures and the lettering is created from an alphabet engraved on vinyl, so the book has an organic feel to it, with the words being an essential part of the design. Lawrence has a very distinctive line and a vigorous engraving technique that gives the book a rhythmic energy and in this lively – and ultimately rather noisy – story, about an adventurous little chick who sets out to meet all the other creatures in the neighbourhood, he imbues all the characters – cows, pigs, sheep, frogs – even tadpoles and bees – with an infectious joie de vivre.
This is a beautifully produced book and turning the pages is like seeing the prints fresh from the press – the fine quality of the reproduction gives an inky lustre to the bold black lines, and with glowing colours and vibrant textures this is not just a glorious picture book but also, in the classroom, a valuable source of inspiration for young printmakers.
The Happy Bee by Ian Beck is a quieter, more reflective tale. With his enchanting mellifluous watercolour technique (presumably it is watercolour, though it is hard to tell here, since the paper is very shiny), Beck gives us a child’s eye view of a lavish array of garden flowers as, one by one, they are visited by a bee. Bees can be scary, but not this one; although the flowers are realistically painted, Beck has wisely made the bee a gentle, unthreatening roly-poly character with an innocent smile and impeccable manners who politely greets all the flowers by name, and hovers patiently while the artist zooms in to explore the very different qualities of each bloom – the subtle, secret folds of the rose, the forthright simplicity of the daisy, the racy but ephemeral flamboyance of the poppies and the exotic allure of the lilies with their creamy lolling tongues. The flowers, the foliage and the opening buds are exquisitely drawn and the gentle stitchery of Beck’s pencil line is subtly echoed in the texture of the thread with which the pages are sewn together – and along with the stiff, deliciously smooth card on which it’s printed, the feel of that linen thread, when you run your finger down it, adds to the very tactile qualities of this handsome and robustly made book.
Experimental, unconventional ways
With First Flight, Sara Fanelli takes a very different look at natural history – and a very different approach to the art of illustration. Fanelli is one of a newish wave of illustrators whose publishers have allowed them to spread their wings a little in experimental, unconventional ways. This is the story of a newly hatched butterfly who longs to launch herself on the world but can’t quite get the hang of flying. Full of eccentric details that invite endless exploration, these pictures take the shape of intricate collages, made with an intriguing mix of snipped up sepia prints, bus tickets, stamps, fabrics, graph paper, evocative snatches of old-fashioned handwriting, pieces of yellowing newsprint, and arcane diagrams. With tremendous delicacy and subtle orchestration of these disparate elements, and atmospheric use of colour and texture, Fanelli’s puppet-like characters manage to convey all kinds of emotion and there’s an impish magic in the spiky hieroglyphic drawings which haunt odd corners of these pages.
In contrast to the precision of Fanelli’s, elegantly controlled compositions, Neal Layton’s story about two woolly mammoths, Oscar and Arabella, has a deliberately scrawly anarchic untidiness. Making use of a computer (perhaps?) Layton brings together panoramic photographic images, watercolour washes, charcoal squiggles, torn paper textures and inky splodges to create authentic backgrounds for the absurd antics of the two woolly mammoths. In witty contrast to the sophisticated traces of the ‘real’ cave paintings that you can just make out on the rock face, Oscar and Arabella are huge shapeless creatures, loosely drawn with scribbly fur, unwieldy tusks and tender pink extremities – but they have enormous charm, galumphing about on the ice, climbing trees and squirting water at Early Man – a curmudgeonly creature, selfishly guarding his fire … but besides all the prehistoric slapstick humour there are moments of calm and sobriety – including a handwritten note with some useful facts about woolly mammoths; and the penultimate spread shows the two mammoths in a touching sleepy embrace, their curving tusks gently echoing the sickle shape of the crescent moon.
Joanna Carey is a writer and illustrator.
This Little Chick, John Lawrence, Walker, 0 7445 7534 6, £10.99 hbk
The Happy Bee, Ian Beck. Scholastic, 0 439 99262 1, £10.99 hbk
First Flight, Sara Fanelli, Cape, 0 224 06457 6, £10.99 hbk
Oscar and Arabella, Neal Layton, Hodder, 0 340 79719 3, £9.99 hbk, 0 340 79720 7, £4.99 pbk