THE RUNAWAY DINNER. By Alan Ahlberg. Illustrated by Bruce Ingman. Walker Books pound;10.99
THE LONELY TREE. By Nicholas Halliday. Halliday Books pound;12.99, pbk Pounds 7.99
FLY, PIGEON, FLY! By John Henderson and Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Thomas Docherty. Little Tiger Press pound;5.99
MIA'S STORY. By Michael Foreman. Walker Books pound;10.99
FLAT STANLEY. By Jeff Brown. Illustrated by Scott Nash. Egmont Press Pounds 10.99
Secret agents, runaway dinners and the return of a flat-out favourite.
Kevin Harcombe selects appealing picture books
Psst! "The ostriches will be swimming in tomato sauce this evening." That's Daisy's spy code for "chicken nuggets and ketchup for tea, please". With false moustache (felt tip), shades and a secret spy telephone (mum's hairbrush), Daisy becomes secret agent 006 and a Bit. To her annoyance, Tiptoes the cat and best friend Gabby don't "get" it and Daisy is very fed up until Agent 0021 and a Bit (aka Dad) gives her his own coded message:
"the crunchy cream biscuits and lemonade will be meeting under the big yellow duvet when the clock strikes 12". My review copy came complete with a false moustache which I dutifully donned. Kes Gray has written a story of everyday make-believe which benefits enormously from Nick Sharratt's perfectly judged illustrations. Some younger readers, such as six-year-old Owen, might understand the spy code but miss the "00" references, but Owen loved the way it ended with a bedtime feast.
More eating in Alan Ahlberg's The Runaway Dinner, with echoes of The Gingerbread Man. Banjo Cannon, a "usual sort of boy", eats a sausage for his dinner every day ("yes, every day") until one sausage (whose name is Melvin) leaps off the plate and runs away, leading Banjo, the furniture, crockery, carrots and fries on a merry chase, quirkily illustrated in "naive" style by Bruce Ingman. Some children didn't like the fact that there were too many names. A name adds character to the sausage, but giving names to the French fries (Fifi, of course) and the peas seemed a little too much. Others liked the easy, conversational style and repetition in the text. Great for five to seven-year-olds, and something of a return to form for Ahlberg.
Have hankies at the ready for The Lonely Tree, an evergreen seedling welcomed to the New Forest by the wise and friendly Old Oak. When autumn comes and the birds fly off to Africa, the Old Oak gets tired and falls asleep as the last acorn falls from him. The little evergreen is cold and lonely without him and is very sad when the Old Oak doesn't reawaken in spring. The themes of loss and love are richly illustrated and sympathetically explored for younger readers and, of course, that last acorn is the seed for a happy ending. There is a good website tie-in (www.thelonelytree.co.uk) but, to my mind, the best book for children on this theme remains Badger's Parting Gifts by Susan Varley (Andersen Press).
Loneliness and love are also key themes in Fly, Pigeon, Fly!. A Glaswegian lad, neglected by his redundant Da, finds a sick baby pigeon in a disused warehouse and nurses it back to health. Da insists the pigeon should be given its freedom, despite his son's attachment to the bird.
Inevitably, even when the pigeon is reluctantly released, it keeps flying home. Ultimately it does not return. Some evocative illustrations contrast the grim, cold indigos and greys of the post-industrial landscapes with the warm, open terracotta of the seaside where the bird is released. I am one of those sad people who read the authors' dedications and was particularly struck by Thomas Docherty's to his mum and dad "who always gave us paper to draw on". Clever mum and dad.
Any hankies left? The dog, Poco, only appears for three pages in Michael Foreman's Mia's Story, but I defy any reader not to have to blink away a tear when he is lost. His young owner, Mia, leaves her home on a rubbish dump at the foot of the Andes and goes in search of him, but instead finds stars and flowers. Foreman's exuberant, life-affirming illustrations are never mawkish or patronising. Eleanor (six) described it as "nice and sweet". She found some of the cursive print "a bit difficult to read" but loved the picture of the first time Mia meets Poco.
To lighten the mood, welcome back Flat Stanley, a favourite for many years and given a makeover in this new picture book version. Its dry humour and the sheer silliness of taking the initial premise (boy squashed to half an inch thick by a falling bulletin board) to its logical conclusions leads to lots of fun. Want to visit California? Simply post yourself there in an envelope. His brother wants a kite. "You can fly me!" offers Flat Stanley, and he does. A colleague shared this at key stage 1 assembly and the children absolutely loved it. Special hilarity was reserved for Stanley as a surfboard and Stanley pretending to be a portrait of Little Bo-Peep. The children felt it was very sad and unfair that Stanley the kite was left up in a tree, and were a little puzzled when Stanley finally reverted to his normal shape with the aid of a pump. You could see them thinking, "Hmm, would that work?"
Kevin Harcombe is headteacher of Redlands primary school, Fareham