The Shape Game. By Anthony Browne. Doubleday pound;10.99. The Magic Paintbrush. By Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Joel Stewart. Macmillan Children's Books pound;9.99. Surprising Sharks. By Nicola Davies, illustrated by James Croft. Walker Books pound;10.99. Jack and the Dreamsack. Text by Laurence Anholt, illustrated by Ross Collins. Bloomsbury pound;9.99.
Somehow, "appreciation" has become something of a tiresome good-for-you word, suggesting the dragging of horses to fetid waters they would not choose to drink. But appreciation is just what a good book can do for a subject whether it be art, natural history, or life itself. Here are four picture books that gently lead the bucking colts to some quiet and mysterious drinking holes.
Anthony Browne's The Shape Game (illustrated left) is his most compelling art appreciation book to date. It was created as part of Browne's nine-month writerillustrator residency at Tate Britain, where he worked with thousands of inner London primary pupils on the Visual Paths programme.
In the book, an artist recalls a childhood memory of a somewhat reluctant family outing to Tate Britain. Through the course of the visit, lines blur between reality and the worlds of the paintings, deftly handled with Browne's trademark surrealism. The father's dumb jokes (another Browne trademark) help steer The Shape Game well clear of any off-putting art-appreciation worthiness.
Throughout the book, Browne illustrates the somewhat lumpen family's gradual enchantment, as they change from monochrome to vivid colour, reminiscent of the film Pleasantville. The Shape Game itself refers to one of the best antidotes to boredom: one child draws a shape and the other has to make the shape into something. The narrator ends by musing "in a way, I've been playing the shape game ever since."
The Magic Paintbrush is based on a traditional Chinese myth. A little girl called Shen uses her magical artistic powers to conjure things for the needy. Her powers come to the attention of the greedy Emperor who imprisons her, but Shen escapes using her magic paintbrush and succeeds in humbling the Emperor. Joel Stewart's illustrations have edgy, inky life to them, handling a traditional tale with contemporary looseness and verve. Julia Donaldson's story is vivid and well directed despite being in regular rhyme, with a subtle colouring to match the illustrations perfectly.
Surprising Sharks is another splendid narrative non-fiction offering from Walker Books. It challenges the notion that sharks are just man-eating monsters. The shark world includes a wide range of weird creatures with some wonderful names (cookie-cutter, nurse, goblin, angel, blackbelly lantern, wobbegong).
The book begins and ends around humankind's relationship to sharks: dogs kill more humans than sharks do, while humans kill 100 million sharks a year. It's anthropomorphic enough to be fun and child friendly but is also an extensive and useful information book. It's only 30 pages long but there is an extensive index and even the end-papers pull their weight with a gallery of the various sharks.
In Jack and the Dreamsack, Ross Collins and Laurence Anholt have created a refreshingly distinct dreamworld full of humour and mystery. Jack journeys into his dreamworld to capture the wonderful things in his dreams and bring them into the waking world. But, of course, none of the dreams stay in the sack, apart from the one miraculous dreamseed he picks off the tree at the centre of the dreamworld.
The dreamseed poetically gives rise to a host of everyday miracles: the birth of a baby, the wonder of nature, and even the joy of pets. Jack concludes that perhaps these wide-awake dreams are the most amazing dreams of all. It's hard to say how many child readers will find a new baby more exciting than the walking car of Jack's dreamworld, but the point is made with a delicate imagination and wisdom that will certainly connect with the adult readers, and offer a tool to help children contemplate the wonders around them.