John Mole on picture books to charm you, terrify you and improve your knowledge of bats. Few picture book covers could be more engaging than Satoshi Kitamura's or more certain to keep its promise. Sheep in Wolves' Clothing is a delightful, eccentric little adventure full of incident and mischievous good humour leading to a climax of joyous mayhem.
The story tells of three sheep, Hubert and Georgina and their friend Gogol, whose outing to the seaside is spoilt by four wolves first encountered playing golf on the beach. These magnificently shifty characters promise to look after the sheep's coats while they go for a swim but, predictably, run off with them. With their cousin Elliott, a detective who never takes off his dark glasses while on a job, the sheep search the nearby town in their underclothes, discovering a gang of alley cats playing rugby with a rapidly unravelling ball of wool. The rest is a fast and comic punch up presented as a mix of full-page spreads and cleverly arranged windows which fragment the action.
Satoshi Kitamura's pictures are rich in character and full of incidental detail, but what really stands out is his wonderful way with faces. Huge, round white eyes with perfectly placed dots combine with the single line of a mouth to express a whole range of emotions - surprise, anxiety, cunning, triumph. This is the cartoonist's art, and Kitamura's originality lies in the imaginative use he makes of it. Deceptively simple, it is at the service of a remarkable sense of design and real gift for narrative.
I greatly admired Chris Van Allsburg's last book, The Widow's Broom, for its powerful mixture of domesticity and dark magic. It was as if the Sorcerer's Apprentice had been rewritten by the Grimm brothers, and the hallucinatory, sepia-tones pictures were thrillingly disconcerting. In The Sweetest Fig, magic once again invades the daily routine, only this time it strikes in the orderly bourgeois world of Monsieur Bibot, an almost pathologically fastidious French dentist whose poor, long-suffering dog is not even allowed to bark except on Bastille Day.
The story tells of an old woman who, in return for treatment, gives this frowning, waxed-moustached fusspot two figs which will make his dreams come true. The consequences are bizarre, presumably unlocking his latent anxieties, and end up in favour of the dog who snaffles the second fig when his master isn't looking. The pictures succeed in conveying both the unpleasantness of Monsieur Bibot and the weirdness of his experiences. One, in particular, is the stuff that bad dreams are made on. The look on Monsieur Bibot's face as he directs his pliers towards his patient's gaping mouth while covering her eyes with the clamp of his hand is enough to put anyone off going to the dentist for life. The Sweetest Fig is an original, chilly book, full of brilliant images which some might prefer to forget.
Comfortably conventional, Helen Craig's little tale of two mice and their seaside adventure is attractively told and wittily illustrated. It's a familiar world of whiskers, whippy tails, little jackets and bravery. Charlie and Tyler at the Seaside gathers momentum when the friends find themselves among the crowds on the pier, and there's a fine picture of the pier's supporting structure dripping with seaweed. There's a good battle, too, when the more adventurous Tyler is snatched up by a seagull and is rescued by Charlie, then it's back home to mull cosily over all that has happened.
Stellaluna, a Number one Best-seller in America, is the first children's book by Janell Cannon who has also won awards for her educational summer reading programmes designed to "dispel erroneous myths" about less cuddly animals. Her subject here is bats, and the simple, informative narrative in which Stellaluna discovers ways in which she is different from the birds into whose nest she falls after escaping an owl, is accompanied by minutely detailed pictures.
A high-gloss, thoroughly professional job, Stellaluna also contains a couple of pages of "Bat Notes" as an appendix and should come in very handy for projects.