THE GARDENER. By Sarah Stewart. Illustrated by David Small. Frances Lincoln pound;10.99.
AT THE EDGE OF THE FOREST. By Jonathan London. Illustrated by Barbara Firth. Walker pound;9.99.
BLUE RABBIT AND FRIENDS. By Christopher Wormell. Jonathan Cape pound;8.99.
THE CROOKED APPLE tREE. By Eric Houghton. Illustrated by Caroline Gold. Barefoot pound;9.99.
Green shoots are springing up in picture books, signalling wishes to change the world for the better, in ways both great and small. John Burningham's Whadayamean? goes global; God gets angry with what's happened to his creation. Rather than another flood, he sends two children to rebuke the industrialists, the religious and military leaders and the thoughtless.
Out of the mouths of the children come God's words, powerful enough to effect the miracle of change. Education backs up the message. The artwork is a wonder: tenderly drawn images in graphite, double spreads with atmospheric muffles of paint, semi-opaque layering, blottings and blobbings, flurries and smoothings, agitated scribbles, photomontage, collage, holy inscriptions, price lists of armaments, and allusions to Burningham's other works - fine art and advertising. In its drama, and blend of the secular and the divine, this picture book is like an end-of-the-millennium morality play for children.
The Gardener, with text by Sarah Stewart in letter form and pictures by David Small, is about bringing heartening changes on a more modest scale. It is set in the United States in the Depression years when Lydia Grace is sent from her home in the Midwest to earn her living in the city with her dour Uncle Jim, a baker. She carries with her a passion for gardening and plenty of seeds.
Ten months later, the facade of the tenement block is festooned with window boxes, the bakery is flourishing, a secret garden blooms on the roof, and Uncle Jim (still unsmiling) thrives in his own way. Small's pictures are in pen and pastel. The vitality of his line expresses both the outward lives and the inner feelings of the characters.
A farmer and his son are confronted with the tricky issue of how to respond to the natural world in At the Edge of the Forest, when a lamb goes missing and a coyote is to blame. Father grabs his shotgun and tracks down a coyote family. But, as he is squeezing the trigger, the boy saves the animals by crying out that these parents had to feed their young. Subsequently, a German shepherd dog is brought in to guard the flocks, and the needs of both human and wild families are balanced.
Barbara Firth has a perfect sense of picture-book page design, and an assured com-mand of her medium. Her drawing gives the figures a sculptural quality, and fluid washes suggest the snowy landscape and the wintry skies in pale lemon, silver blues and greys.
Four toy animals each seek a change of habitat in Blue Rabbit and Friends by Christopher Wormell. The plot, visual tempo and outcome are as sure-footed as a well-executed square dance. Each page has a framed wood-cut showing simple shapes in strong, black outline and vibrant hues. Much of the humour lies in the counterpoint between words which describe settings in the wild, and pictures which show them to be in the nursery.
Two children change their views about the garden of their new home in The Crooked Apple Tree by Eric Houghton. Initially, they are disappointed, but as the season passes and their imaginations unfurl, an old tree becomes the site and source for many different games of "let's pretend". Caroline Gold's illustrations are naturalistic in style, with watercolour, gouache and pastel creating a soft haze of colour.