Jeff Hynds takes his pick of the season’s new picture books.
When BfK editor Chris Powling rang me up and cheerily asked me to ‘do a round-up’ of the Spring picture books, it seemed such an attractive task that I readily agreed. What happened next rather took me by surprise. I’m not quite sure what I expected, but in the next few days I was all but submerged by sackfuls of books and proofs and photocopies from a plethora of publishers. As I spread them out and looked and read, I ‘grew in wonder’ like the boy in The Search for Spring (Moira Miller, ill. Ian Deuchar, Methuen, 0 416 01882 3, £5.95). And like him I had no-one who could readily help me find the answers to the questions that began to arise in my mind. Which of these scores of books would be popular with children? Which ones would parents or teachers want to know about? Which were the books of real quality, or true artistic merit? Would any be best-sellers? How could I select from so many books that seemed so varied and yet, on the face of it anyway, all so alluring?
Unlike the enterprising hero of Moira Miller’s story, I was too cowardly to begin my search alone, so with a few instantly recruited children (in assorted sizes) at my side, I set about it. We began – it seemed appropriate – with The Search for Spring, and with five other tales of seeking and finding and self-discovery.
A Midsummer Night’s Tale
Veronica Leo, Methuen, 0 416 09482 1, £6.95
The Red Parcel
Linda and Gino Alberti, trans. Alison Sage, Hutchinson, 0 09 173686 2, £6.50
Friedrich Recknagel and Vlasta Barankova, trans. Alison Sage, Hutchinson, 0 09 173706 0, £6.50
Nowhere to be Found
Alan Marks, Picture Book Studio, 0 88708 062 6, £5.95
The Man Who Wanted to Live for Ever
Selina Hastings, ill. Reg Cartwright, Walker Books, 0 7445 0755 3, £6.95
These tales, mostly traditional retellings or cast in folk tale mould, are all strange, and full of enigmatic incident or cryptic remark. Thus we were not always sure what the stories meant, but we certainly found ourselves stirred by the eerie happenings and the atmospheric quality of the art work which, though by different artists, is always striking and often stunning. These mysterious and intriguing picture books would appeal to older sophisticated readers. They need not only to be read, but to be re-read and thought about. They require you to join in the search. We turned, and not just for light relief, to something rather different.
Ruth Brown, Andersen Press, 0 86264 200 0, £5.95
Ruth Brown’s beautiful paintings enhance this charmingly extended version of the well known nursery rhyme. Although appropriate for much younger children than the folk tales we began with, the quest theme is here also. Ladybird sets out on a truly perilous journey – there’s danger in almost every picture – before arriving safely back home to find her house isn’t on fire and her children aren’t gone.
Three Little Kittens
Paul Galdone, Heinemann, 0 434 93906 4, £5.95
There’s quite a crop of illustrated nursery rhymes this year. This is an attractive version, by a talented artist, whose special style suits this rhyme and nicely complements the bold, large print. It should prove popular with the youngest of children. Anyway, we all liked it.
Michael Bragg, Gollancz, 0 575 04097 1, £6.95
Like the foregoing, this is another traditional rhyme done into pictures. The children of each day are circus children, and their story unfolds in Michael Bragg’s ingeniously linked illustrations. At the end there’s advice on how to find out which day of the week you were born on; my youthful helpers all immediately wanted to do just this, and see how they fitted in to the story. I’m bonny and blithe, by the way.
The Get Better Book
Paul and Emma Rogers, ill. Jo Burroughes, Orchard Books, 185213 049 0, £6.25
From the title you wouldn’t know this was yet another nursery rhyme book, but it is, and a very clever and entertaining one too.
When Jack falls down and breaks his crown, Jill is dispatched for Dr Foster. Unfortunately he is out on a case – a certain Miss Muffet has sustained a nasty shock … In all seven nursery rhymes are woven into the modern verse tale, but if you miss one of the references, like I did, the original rhymes are included at the end.
The Magic Birthday Cake
Stephen May, Deutsch, 0 233 98079 2, £5.50
The big print and childlike drawings don’t seem too promising when you begin this book, but you suddenly get caught up with the zany cake-making. It becomes quite hysterical by the time Wally Walter gets down to his underpants. In fact, we were all sorry that he got dressed again for the final picnic. I think this picture book will prove popular with lots of children, but Stephen May must look to his art work. One of my youthful helpers commented: ‘He can’t colour very well, he keeps going over the edge’!
Super Dooper Jezebel
Tony Ross, Andersen Press, 0 86264 221 3, £5.95
‘Jezebel was perfect in every way. She was so perfect, she was called Super Dooper Jezebel.’ Thus begins the tale of an obnoxious young child who can do no wrong. I was irresistibly reminded of someone, but couldn’t quite establish who, until I came to the part where the Prime Minister heard about Jezebel, and ‘sent a special medal for being good’. That figured. The end is sudden, and even though you’re expecting something to happen, what does happen comes as quite a shock. The final comment is perfect. Super Dooper Tony Ross, I’d say.
Anyone Seen Harry Lately?
Hiawyn Oram, ill. Tony Ross, Andersen Press, 0 86264 198 5, £5.95
That man Ross again, this time illustrating a witty story about Harry, master of transmogrification. It’s his way of getting out of doing anything he doesn’t like. Mind, like Dr Jekyll before him, he begins to lose control of the process, and tries hard to do something about it. Oram and Ross exploit this with a compelling combination of verbal and visual dexterity. The story ends with Harry, apparently reformed, settling down for the night with his parents. His parting wink makes it doubtful whether their sleep will be peaceful for long.
Sleep is anything but peaceful for the 20 characters in the next two books.
Ten in a Bed
Mary Rees, Andersen Press, 0 86264 197 7, £5.95
Ten in the Bed
Penny Dale, Walker Books, 0 7445 0797 9, £6.95
These two versions of the well known traditional song are delightful, and really very different. In Mary Rees’s version the characters are all Giles-like children, while in Penny Dale’s book there is one little boy, with nine cuddly toys, suffering from insomnia. If you’re looking for something quiet at bedtime, look elsewhere, because after these hilarious and action-packed books, most children would be up all night.
Perhaps the next bedtime book, where a quite different mood prevails, would settle them down.
Jan Wahl, ill. William Joyce, Gollancz, 0 575 04234 6, £6.95
This touching story, with its evocative illustrations, was a favourite with all of us. Humphrey, a little boy with a teddy bear, is seemingly asleep, but the night brings an exotic journey with a teddy bear now grown huge. In the tradition of Sendak’s Wild Things, Briggs’ Snowman and Browne’s Gorilla, with pictures almost Pre-Raphaelite, we thought this stunning. The formula may be getting well worn, but it is still powerful. ‘Lovely’, ‘gentle’, ‘beautiful’, chorused my young team.
The Great Escape
Philippe Dupasquier, Walker Books, 0 7445 0799 5, £6.95
Another story from Dupasquier, whose reputation grows apace, told entirely in his witty, engaging, busy illustrations – over 120 of them in fact. I was irresistibly reminded of the Keystone Cops as the escaping gaolbird is pursued all over town and countryside by a bunch of bungling gaolers. Nothing is sacred as the chase successively disrupts museum, hospital, film-set, circus, local hunt and wedding. It finally ends, like The Third Man, with a hunt through the sewers. Well, not exactly ends. This story isn’t going to end all that quickly as you will see! I don’t know what they’ll think of it in Wandsworth, but we loved it.
I’m Going on a Gorilla Hunt
Maurice Jones, ill. Charlotte Firmin, Deutsch, 0 233 98097 0, £4.95
Another escape, from the local zoo this time, and another hunt, rather better planned than those Keystone Cops could manage. The story is told in a combination of octosyllabic couplets and large, double page illustrations. Children’s books seem to be full of gorillas these days. There are even twoin this one. But expect no heavy symbolism or covert message. This little mystery yarn is more in the vein of Professor Peabody than Anthony Browne. Innocent and enjoyable, like the same team’s earlier Dragon Hunt.
Carry Go Bring Come
Vyanne Samuels, ill. Jennifer Northway, Bodley Head, 0 370 31092 6, £5.95
‘Jennifer Northway’s illustrations vividly bring to life this sparkling picture book story by a new Jamaican writer.’ So says the cover blurb, and we agreed with it. What happens to Leon on his sister’s wedding day, as he tries to do everyone’s bidding, is very funny, and without doubt typical of what can happen to little boys on their sisters’ wedding days, if they’re not careful.
The Secret in the Matchbox
Val Willis, ill. John Shelley, Deutsch, 0 233 98088 1, £5.50
Bobby Bell, a somewhat waif-like child with unsuspected powers, has a secret in a matchbox, and he takes it to school. His attempts to share his secret are intercepted by his unpleasant and, by today’s standards, very unenlightened teacher. No doubt she deserved what she got, and therein lies the moral of this tale. (Something like ‘Teachers who clearly have not been on an in-service course for years should be given a huge fright’.) The ending could be a let-down, but perhaps you will find yourself drawn back to examine the smaller drawings and designs in the borders of every large double-page illustration. If so, you will have begun your search for more secrets than the one in the matchbox. A most successful collaboration between writer and artist. My young assistants thought it ‘brill’ and ‘exey’.
Graeme Garden and Neil Canning, Methuen, 0 416 04612 6, £5.95
A series of verses about the ‘skylighters’ who paint the sky in all its moods. The verses are neat, and the witticisms are effectively complemented by the visual jokes. This book was extremely popular with my young panel, though I felt myself that the art work needed to be of better quality. After all the book was about painters; you expect something a bit special.
Sir Francis Drake: His Daring Deeds
Roy Gerrard, Gollancz, 0 575 04087 4, £4.95
A picture book which, by art or hap, commemorates the four-hundredth anniversary of the Armada. Roy Gerrard’s delicate, detailed, cartoon-like paintings and racy, irreverent verses (‘Hello sailor,’ said the Queen, ‘sit down and tell us where you’ve been’) are an irresistible combination. This book would appeal to a wide age-range and teach a few historical truths the other history books don’t teach. Splendid stuff!
Noah and the Ark
Pauline Baynes, Methuen, 0 416 02662 1, £5.95
The text of this ambitious book closely follows that of the relevant chapters in Genesis (Authorized Version) and would not therefore be easy for younger readers.
But readers of all ages will enjoy the stylized, dramatic paintings by Pauline Baynes. They have an almost palpable medieval quality which adds considerably to the force of the Bible story. This book instantly recalls Peter Spier’s very different version The Great Flood, published ten years ago by World’s Work. There are interesting pictorial similarities, nonetheless. But my little team were a bit doubtful about all this.
The Faithful Dove
Beatrix Potter, ill. Marie Angel, 0 7232 3532 5
How the Camel Got His Hump
Rudyard Kipling, ill. Krystyna Turska, 0 7232 3450 7
The Owl and the Pussy-cat
Edward Lear, ill. Colin West, 0 7232 3541 4
Beauty and the Beast
E Nesbit, ill. Julia Christie, 0 7232 3540 6
Warne, £3.95 each
These four welcome additions to the Warne Classics Series (all in original ‘Beatrix Potter’ format) are reissues with new illustrators in each case. Beatrix Potter never illustrated her little known ‘true story’ The Faithful Dove, but Marie Angel has sympathetically remedied the omission. Both the Kipling and the Lear volumes contain other famous stories and poems (not just the one used for the title). Many children, even older children, would need help with these texts, particularly E Nesbit’s version of Beauty and the Beast, but these books would be marvellous for reading aloud before gracing the classroom collection with some attractive stories and poems of yester-year.
Beauty and the Beast
Eleanor Vere Boyle, retold by Elizabeth Rudd, 0 09 172713 8
Puss in Boots
Edmund Morin, retold by Josephine Poole, 0 09 172708 1
Hutchinson, £3.95 each
Another version of Beauty and the Beast, together with Puss in Boots, appears in the Hutchinson Golden Classics series. Though the same price, these picture books are much bigger than the little Warne versions, in order to do justice to the nineteenth-century artists whose work is used to illustrate them. For here we have the old artists with modern versions of the stories, a reversal of the Warne arrangement. The combination is striking and interesting; the stories are well told (it’s probably heresy but I preferred Rudd’s Beauty and the Beast to Nesbit’s!) and the old illustrations remarkably poignant. My helpers, though, looked at me oddly.
Anna Sewell, ill. Charles Keeping, Gollancz, 0 575 03924 8, £8.95
Yet another classic of the Victorian age, this version of Black Beauty, an enduring favourite since its first appearance in 1877 – after all, 30 million copies is not bad – is given exceptional life and character by some 80 new illustrations by Charles Keeping. Keeping fans will be charmed, and perhaps a little surprised, by the extraordinary delicacy of these pictures. He recreates the Victorian atmosphere perfectly, and is clearly a close observer of the work-horse. A beautiful book, we all thought.
‘In truth my search is ended,’ said he, ‘I have at last found Spring, and it was always here.’ Maybe the boy had, but had we? What had we found?
Well, for a start, we found another 20 or 30 books that we would have liked to have included but for which space just does not allow. Perhaps we could just mention Froggie Goes A-Courting (Susan Hellard, Piccadilly, 0 946826 96 X, £5.50), a jokey, flap-up version of the folk song -‘I like the way the heart cracks,’ said one of my young ones; My Grandma Has Black Hair (Mary Hoffman, ill. Joanna Burroughes, Methuen, 0 416 01892 0, £4.95), a story about an unconventional grandma -‘I wish my gran was like that’; The Trouble with Grandad (Babette Cole, Heinemann, 0 434 93294 9, £5.95), all enormous vegetables and caterpillars; Fanny and Blanche (Claudia de Week, Simon & Schuster, 0 671 69889 3, £5.95) – ‘You mustn’t lock birds up, poor things’; Little Kitten in Trouble (Keiko Kanao, Heinemann, 0 434 94579 X, £5.95), a book which opens along the top edge, for the very good reason that the kitten’s up a very tall tree!
And I think we found something else. We found that in spite of rumours to the contrary many fine children’s books continue to be published. There are indeed so many that, though these were but the picture books and this was but the Spring collection, we were all but overwhelmed by them. There is so much wealth for children here, so much to teach them about life, about themselves, about how to read and about how to write, that it must remain the biggest wonder of all that so many of our schools, and some of our education authorities, still seem to think that you can do a better job with Through the Rainbow, One, Two, Three and Away and Reading 360.
Why remain in poverty when you are in the midst of riches? Especially when you don’t even have to search for those riches. Like the boy said, Spring is here. It’s been here all the time.
Jeff Hynds is a major figure in the movement to promote ‘real’ reading. After retiring from Avery Hill College in South London, where he ran a famous reading course, his career as a freelance was much boosted by Bromley’s Director of Education who banned all his teachers from any Hynds’ venture thereby ensuring that Jeff is more than ever in demand.