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On both sides of the divide

The warning signs appear first on television screens and in newspapers in From a Distance, Jane Ray's new picture book which follows a community in and out of crisis. The visual narrative she has placed alongside the words of Julie Gold's song tells a universal tale (two schoolfriends are separated when war turns one of them into a refugee) but was inspired by the war in Bosnia.

"Part of the horror was the immediacy with which you saw individuals' stories unfolding on television day by day, and were powerless to do anything about it."

In 1995 Ray read a report of the charity Cry Bosnia's campaign to equip children's libraries and set up printing presses as part of the country's rehabilitation. "I realised how libraries and publishers were a crucial part of rebuilding people's lives after their immediate needs had been met. At the same time I was sent the words to "From a Distance" and everything seemed to gell - I saw how I could have a role as a children's book illustrator." Cry Bosnia - in its new identity as Connect Humanitarian Agency - will get a share of the proceeds of the finished book.

From a Distance is a gift for assemblies. Ray hopes it will encourage schools to support Connect - even adopt it as a Year of Reading charity. Connect has a range of projects, some of which promote literacy.

Ray experimented with montage techniques to create layered tales of a suffering city, which can be understood on many levels by people of all reading abilities - non-readers could use the book with a recording of the song, written amid the protest movement of the Sixties. "It was a challenge to make the city look genuinely battle-torn rather than distressed in a genteel sort of way and to make it work next to the song, which is very upbeat."

The result is recognisably a Jane Ray book but the gold leaf that gilded the gingerbread house in her Hansel and Gretel appears here on helicopter blades.

"When you do traditional tales there are some beautiful images, but there is a dark side too, which children are very in touch with. Hansel and Gretel is one of the most terrible stories ever, but it's the children who resolve the situation.

"You can show young children darkness and fear as long as you give them the wherewithal to get out of it."

The two friends are reunited in the final picture, but the artist has avoided a bland ending. The surrounding images are of people struggling to rebuild their lives. "I was anxious not to be naive but you have to leave children some hope."

Geraldine Brennan Connect Humanitarian Agency, 17 Jeffrey Street, Edinburgh EWH1 1DR. e-mail 'From a Distance' is published by Orchard, Pounds 10.99

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