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Creature comfort

Jane Doonan finds characters in the animal kingdom who will soothe children's insecurities and turn teachers into star performers

IGOR, THE BIRD WHO COULDN'T SING. By Satoshi Kitamura. Andersen Press Pounds 10.99

IN A LITTLE WHILE. By Charlotte Hudson. Illustrated by Mary McQuillan. Bodley Head pound;10.99

SNIP SNAP! By Mara Bergman. Illustrated by Nick Maland. Hodder Children's Books pound;10.99

CAPTAIN FLINN AND THE PIRATE DINOSAURS. By Giles Andreae. Illustrated by Russell Ayto. Puffin pound;10.99

DOZY MARE. By Jeanne Willis. Illustrated by Tony Ross. Andersen Press Pounds 9.99

PIGLET AND MAMA. By Margaret Wild. Illustrated by Stephen Michael King. Southwood Books pound;9.99

Feathers flutter, fur ruffles, and scales shine in this covetable collection of new picturebooks. The hero in Satoshi Kitamura's Igor, the Bird who Couldn't Sing is a young blackbird. Alas, his attempt to join the dawn chorus ends in disaster. He can't hold a tune. He practises, he gets a teacher, but it's no good. Like the free jazz pioneer, Ornette Coleman, to whom Satoshi dedicates this book, Igor's early career is a story of considerable adversity and struggle. All the other creatures can make music, but Igor can't please himself, let alone an audience.

In despair, he goes into the wilderness but, inspired by the sunset's beauty, he cannot resist raising his voice. Something wonderful happens. He awakens a Dodo who hasn't sung for years and now wants to join in with Igor; it's duets from now on. An endearing hero, ravishing colour, a lyrical-graphic equivalence for musical sounds in patterned shapes that float and soar: this is Satoshi Kitamura at the very top of his formidable game.

Charlotte Hudson and Mary McQuillan have a remarkable talent for expressing young children's insecurities in a fresh and unsentimental way (see Who Will Sing My Puff-a-Bye? reviewed in Teacher magazine on October 29, 2004).

Their latest collaboration, In a Little While, gets inside the experience of Wobbily Fang, whose mother goes into hospital. Daddy and Wobbily go to visit her. The little wolf, seeing her looking vulnerable, has two things on his mind: wanting to know when she will be coming home ("in a little while", say the adults), and in the meantime, how he can cheer her up. His creative thinking helps time to pass for them both. McQuillan's illustrations have surface effects as silky as a cub's pelt; she portrays touchingly quirky characters, and includes just enough detail to ensure interest. The end papers map the Wolf family's world, and extend the story.

The borderline between dramatic art and picturebooks virtually dissolves in Snip Snap! by Mara Bergman and Nick Maland. The scene: a block of flats, home of three young children. Enter an alligator, creeping up the stairs and nosing through the door. Were the children scared? YOU BET THEY WERE! And this is just the beginning. Here's a picturebook which, read aloud, will transform any teacher into a star performer; the fanciful situation, increasing narrative tension, rhythmic text, onomatopoeic words, graphic clues for varying verbal volume, and masterly cartooning guarantee this is a class act. The young audience can enjoy a delicious dose of the horrors while learning that, when afraid, it's best to face up to your fears. And will there be calls for an encore? You bet there will.

More drama: Giles Andreae and Russell Ayto present Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs, an adventure story that cleverly combines the fun of fictional piracy with the enduring allure of prehistoric animals. The illustrations have a cinematic immediacy, colours of electronic intensity, and the page-turns leave you hanging from the yard-arm. Young Flinn and his three intrepid friends go through the back of the school stock cupboard to help Captain Stubble, a heartbroken pirate, recover his missing ship.

Imagine the consternation when this little crew discovers the ship has been stolen by Pirate Dinosaurs. To win it back, Flinn duels with Captain Tyrannosaurs Rex who, upon defeat, converts to goodness instantly. When the adventurers creep back into the classroom, their teacher has no idea what's been happening.

Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross, in another of their brilliant collaborations, create Dozy Mare, which neatly encapsulates the theme of motivation and incentive. Years 1 and 2 might enjoy discussing this topic. Dozy Mare is very lazy, so her owners - a succession of them - soon sell her on, though nothing else changes. Generally she just stands, and on Sunday she sits.

She declines to giddy-up, play, jump, pull anything, prance anywhere, or shift her shoes: "Not flipping likely". That is, until she gets sold to the butcher. Tony Ross's cartooning marries wondrously absurd images with uninhibited colour combinations.

Margaret Wild's story of Piglet and Mama is ideal for Reception children who feel wobbly about being away from a carer; Stephen Michael King's illustrations, in a nimble line and luminous water colour, inspire empathy with the characters. Piglet loses her Mama, and sets off round the farm to find her, oinking as she goes. The animals she meets, wanting to help, offer all manner of delightful diversions, none of which appeal to Piglet until she is reunited with her Mama.

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