In 1984 Walker Books added sixteen new series to its catalogue – a huge expansion on the list with which the imprint was launched in 1983.
How good are they?
We sent a box of Walker books to a group of Hampshire Librarians and asked them to tell us what they thought.
Before we embarked on this activity we had not fully appreciated what a remarkable phenomenon Walker Books is. We remembered the joint imprint with Methuen Books and we associated good things like Helen Oxenbury’s First Picture Books series and William Mayne’s Hob Stories with the new name: a slightly superior new publisher, we thought.
Our examination of the Walker Books list has shown how much more there is to it. We found a wide range of books characterised by high quality production and a particularly high standard of illustration. High quality is not always attended by commercial success but the sheer quantity of books published at a time when many publishers are cutting back shows that they have judged the market accurately.
We have chosen to comment on eleven of the twenty-six series currently in the catalogue. (Walker Books favours series of titles) including the Zebra Books range. The selection is mainly for younger children (the strength of the list we think, though the beginnings of non-fiction for slightly older readers looks interesting) and does not include novelty books which are of limited value for library and classroom use.
Walker Books moved smartly into the publishing gap first discussed in print by Valerie Wilsher in her article Books for the under-twos in Signal 38. Prompted by that and by Dorothy Butler’s Babies need books librarians everywhere began looking for more books for the very young. Now Walker Books are amongst those providing a range of board books and simple picture books which help to fill that gap.
Very young children like Rosalinda Kightley’s On the Move board books, though to adult eyes they are not artistically distinguished.
The bright, jolly, cartoon-like illustrations are accompanied by a simple story line and at 95p they are good value.
The Little Red Car 0184 9, The Big Blue Truck 0185 7, The Busy Orange Tractor 0186 5, The Strong Yellow Tugboat 0187 3, The Noisy Green Engine 0188 1, 95p each (14pp)
Animal Board Books by Kenneth Lilly have a stronger adult appeal. The beautifully detailed and realistic illustrations are quite outstanding, particularly rare for this format. The short line of text on each page provides a good basic talking point. The content and quality means that these board books can be used in Infant Schools as well as with the youngest child.
Jumpers 0098 2, Climbers 0099 0, Swimmers 0100 8, Runners 0101 6, Builders 0102 4, £1.50 each (10pp)
Picture Book Talkabouts
For a clear view of the world of young children and their attendant adults we cannot do better than turn to Helen Oxenbury’s First Picture Books. An instant success, these stories combine a minimal text with lovely but devastatingly truthful pictures which capture the joys and embarrassments of childhood. The clever use of humour holds the adult’s attention as much as the child’s. Both can identify characters and situations they recognise; the enthusiastic but hopelessly untidy child, the pink lady at the playgroup and the terrible complications of eating out `en famille’. Here is something for everyone.
New titles ’84: Gran and Grandpa 0181 4, Our Dog 0182 2, The Visitor 0183 0, £2.95 each (24pp)
John Burningham’s First Words is a simpler but no less effective series. A small child is accompanied by toy bear and various animals in a variety of real and fantasy situations which illustrate a much more interesting range of words than are usually found in ‘first concept’ books. ‘Wobble’, ‘jangle’, ‘slump’, ‘shout’ – this last as the cat walks over a precious painting – all sound as good as they look in accurate representations of the meanings of the words. In addition the sequence of pictures builds into a story. Great value.
cluck baa 0164 4, skip trip 0165 2, slam bang 0166 0, sniff shout 0167 9, wobble pop 0168 7, jangle twang 0169 5, £1.95 each (24pp)
Philippe Dupasquier’s Busy Places, at first we eyed a little doubtfully; some liked them, some did not. But we found they have definite appeal to young children who are fascinated by the bustle and action which cover every double page spread. The scenes are full of the clutter of real life and provide so much to talk about that we found the text redundant.
The Garage 0158 X, The Airport 0159 8, The Building Site 0160 1, The Harbour 0161 X, The Railway Station 0162 8, The Factory 0163 6, £2.50 each (24pp)
Picture Book Stories
In Derek Hall’s Growing Up books young Panda, Tiger and Otter learn essential skills illustrated in excellent pictures by John Butler showing attention to detail on every page. The text is a model of economy and explores the events of a young animal’s life whilst never descending into sentimentality. These have the blessing of the World Wildlife Fund and the approval of several five year olds of our acquaintance.
Panda Climbs 0131 8, Otter Swims 0132 6, Tiger Runs 0133 4, £2.50 each (24pp) Three more titles in May.
Russell Hoban’s Ponders is a more ambitious and sophisticated series of animal stories which we liked less well. Perhaps it is a matter of taste, of whether you like your information straight or enjoy it mixed with fiction, but to us the stories are contrived and, especially in Lavinia Bat, the facts become muddles which are lost in the inventiveness of the story. Martin Baynton’s illustrations are as good as any but only the occasional gleaming phrase reminds one of Russell Hoban at his best.
’84 titles: Charlie Meadows 0076 1, Lavinia Bat 0079 X, £3.50 each (24pp)
Ivor Cutler’s The Herbert Books were not well liked by the children we tried them with. A visual representation of a small boy’s fantasies they show Herbert as a chicken in one and an elephant in another. His mother accepts the change without question and provides appropriate food. Alfreda Benge’s almost surrealist style of illustration suits the nature of the story well but, in spite of the humour, the children found the stories pointless and the characters unattractive. Perhaps with a different group of children …
Herbert the Chicken 0088 5, Herbert the Elephant 0089 3, £3.95 (32pp). Two new titles in April.
David Lloyd’s Great Escapes series is billed as an ‘animal Canterbury Tales’ and is inclined to be a little pretentious and to try too hard. Each volume tells the tale of one of the six animals in the gang. The idea is somewhat sentimental but often the quality of the writing just saves it. We liked the ,mouse-eating monster land’ in Mot the Mouse and Barbara Firth’s delicate illustrations make these books very attractive.
Jack the Dog 0170 9, Lady Loudly the Goose 0171 7, Mot the Mouse 0172 5, £3.95 each (32pp). Three new titles in March.
Something special: The Hob Books
For librarians with long memories William Mayne’s name is a warning sign. ‘Be careful’ it says ‘that seductive and original style may not appeal to the children’. So we eyed the Books of Hob Stories doubtfully. Hob is a form of household tomten or brownie; he protects his household from a variety of intruders who are personifications of household problems such as the Sad, Bad Temper, the Cough etc. Patrick Benson won the Mother Goose award for his lovely soft illustrations of Hob’s shadowy world and his imaginative portrayal of his strange opponents. Once accustomed to the unusual style two bright 8/9 year olds found the books compulsive so it seems likely that librarians and teachers who take the trouble to introduce them to the right children will be rewarded by the reaction to their rare quality.
The Red Book 0120 2, The Green Book 0121 0, The Yellow Book 0122 9, The Blue Book 0123 7, £3.95 each (32pp)
Zebra Books is the general title of a whole range of series which seem to be intended as an alternative to Ladybirds for young children. The price (75p) and format make the comparison inevitable so how far have they succeeded and with which areas of the market?
Parents buying or borrowing books usually expect a lot for their money and effort – hence the rather jam-packed approach of some cheap books for the young. Zebra Books, benefiting from the advice so wisely sought from the Pre-school Playgroups Association, have avoided this trap and most of the series have just the right amount of text, visual stimulus and things to talk about.
Something of their success may be gauged by their appearance as the basis for a range of pre-school computer software produced by Griffin.
Libraries in Hampshire are buying them with caution. It is easy to overdo things with a prolific new series and little books so beloved by children are sometimes seen as a nuisance by staff for their ability to slip behind the shelves and disappear into the bottom of kinderboxes. Consequently we are looking carefully to see which titles have the most appeal.
Obvious winners so far are the First Maths books with their charming green Monster who is very popular with the under-fives. Close inspection reveals that this Monster has real personality and a child-like approach to life. He eagerly joins nine slightly surprised looking ducks in the water and tackles with equal zest a thick hamburger and a thin slice of fruit tart. He is a bit nervous of five dogs and takes refuge up a tree and he definitely prefers the low diving board to the high one.
The series is by John Satchwell, ill. Katy Sleight.
Odd One Out 0127 X, Big and Little 0128 8, Shapes 0129 6, Counting 0130 X.
Look and Say books are simple identification books intended to encourage speech in the very young. The words are printed in the pencil-line style familiar in infant schools so it may be that they have a use as pre-readers. The style and choice of objects reinforces this impression. Some of the objects are a little odd and old-fashioned looking but the device of an animal using each object gives these books a pleasing sense of continuity.
By Sue Tarsky, ill. Clive Scruton, Cup and Bowl 0026 5, Apple and Pear 0027 3, Doll and Drum 0028 1, Table and Chair 0029 X.
Time to Talk is another vocabulary building series. It succeeds by providing pictures of everyday situations such as playing and bathtime and adding questions and comments in a low key style which avoids the didactic approach often found in other `talkabout’ books. There is plenty of detail in the rather pale pastel coloured illustrations and it is pleasant to see a variety of sequencing and page layouts which help to keep the interest of child and parent.
Bathtime 0010 9, Mealtime 0011 7, Shopping 0012 5, Playtime 0013 3.
We found Easy Learning with its carefully contrived situations and poorly-drawn pictures less successful though still an acceptable addition to first concept books. Minor domestic incidents, finding and choosing a pair of socks and keeping quiet while a younger child sleeps are familiar to all brothers and sisters so perhaps the ideas are better than the finished products.
By David Lloyd, ill. Malcolm Livingstone
Coloured Socks 0022 2, Keeping Quiet 0023 0, High and Low 0024 9, How Many Fingers? 0025 7.
Hide and Seek books’ are packed with interesting detail in a range of popular styles of illustration. The minimal text is occasionally irritating, particularly in Farm Animals but it provides a springboard for children to study the pictures closely and join in the game.
By Wendy Boase, Farm Animals 0018 4, Country Animals 0019 2, Park Animals 0020 6, Woodland Animals 0021 4, Toyland, ill. Elisa Trimby 0145 8, Fairyland, ill. Jenny Rodwell, 0146 6, The Castle, ill. Pauline King 0147 4, The Circus, ill. Deborah Ward 0148 2.
Extending Zebras a little further David Lloyd’s First Words show great variety in length, style and complexity. They are designed ‘to encourage an early awareness that the words in books are as much fun as the pictures’ but to do that needs a touch of genius lacking in some of them. The most successful are the simplest. Duck and Cat and Dog both have illustrations which exactly match the style and content of the imaginative text while the busy approach of Bread and Cheese and Jack and Nelly is less happy. Bread and Cheese does have the advantage though of a plethora of people and animals which would make it a useful addition to many book corners.
’84 titles: Jack and Nelly, ill. Clive Scruton 0141 5, Hat, ill. Gill Tomblin 0142 3, Duck, ill. Charlotte Voake 0143 1, Bread and Cheese, ill. Deborah Ward 0144 X, Cat and Dog Clive Scruton 0007 9.
The other story series in the Zebras range is First Fairytales. These are a considerable improvement on most of the low priced versions available. They were not much liked though by experienced storytellers who commented that children (and some adults) do not take kindly to traditional formulas being frilled up. In Three Bears the porridge is not just too hot but ‘so hot it burnt her tongue’ and the big chair was ‘far too big for her and the cushion was horribly hard’. But such well-known stories are notoriously difficult to re-tell and these versions will be enjoyed by many parents and children. The illustrations are imaginative and well drawn in a good variety of styles and it is good to see that the choice of stories has been sensibly kept to those most suited to the very young.
Three Bears 0014 1, Red Riding Hood 0015 X, Three Little Pigs 0016 8, Billy Goats Gruff 0017 6.
It is too soon to tell how successful Zebras will be as a series. If they are to challenge Ladybirds successfully they will have to overcome what to some adult eyes may be the disadvantage that Ladybirds are nearly twice as long; Zebras use the standard 32 page format while Ladybirds still have an amazing 50 plus pages. Fortunately there are plenty of people who do not subscribe to the ‘never mind the quality feel the width’ view of life and certainly the parents to whom we showed the Zebra books were impressed by the range and quality.
An Overall View
Walker Books in general are a welcome sight on library shelves and in boxes of new books. It is noticeable that of the forty or so books we examined and used with children only two were singled out as having poorly drawn pictures; even that was a mild comment and not one of the scathing remarks frequently made by librarians about new books.
There is one comment we would like the editors to take serious note of though. We hope that future titles will feature families from the ethnic minorities who are conspicuously absent, except as rare background figures, from the books inspected.
Apart from these few criticisms, we have come to expect of Walker Books, high quality production, consistently good and sometimes outstanding illustrations and very high editorial standards. We particularly like the fact that the author and illustrator are always named, showing a justifiable pride in good work.
There can be no doubt that Walker Books are an excellent addition to the children’s publishing scene and we look forward with pleasure to future publications.
This feature was compiled by Mary Watkins, County Children’s and Schools’ Librarian; Lyn Baran, S.E. Divisional Children’s Librarian and Lesley Crowthers, Family Library Link Librarian. All are on the staff of Hampshire County Library Service.
NB To all ISBNs quoted here you should add the Walker Books prefix, 0 7445.