Naomi Lewis reviews children's fiction with an environmental message. If a thread connects these books of pictured stories for younger children, it is, you could say, the topical one of Man and Nature. When human greed advances on earth, air, sky, sea plants, trees, animals, whose side do we take? Most children have an answer. Still, the stories matter in their own right. The better the tale and telling, the more impact their content makes.
So, my first choice here must be the splendid collection Beyond the Rainbow Warrior. Nine seasoned writers have met the challenge in a remarkable diversity of ways with often outstanding illustrations by nine artists. All of the tales would work, I think, for captive listeners as old as 10 or 11, as well as for younger groups.
Try, for a start, Anthony Horowitz's witty pro-dragon story, illustrated by Quentin Blake, where so many points are lightly tossed in with the text. And follow it with Stevie Smith's dragon-poem "Fafnir" - not in the book, but fairly easy to find. Elizabeth Laird's superbly illustrated albatross story - fact, not fantasy (fishermen's nets are the killers) - is a perfect lead to "The Ancient Mariner". The cleverest tale, as writing goes, could well be Tim Wynne-Jones's "In A House Built Out of Dragonfly Wings", a detective piece about river pollution. Ideas abound for debate in all these stories. Teachers, arm yourselves with this volume; you won't regret it.
The Tower to the Sun is an extraordinary book. The idea has the wild impossible logic of so many fairy tales - and, even more, of nursery rhymes - but the surreal precision of the pictures gives the illusion offact. Almost.
In a future time, not too far off, the polluted upper air has become so dense that only the old can remember seeing blue skies and the sun. The richest man in the world and his young grandson decide to build a tower to pierce the fog above - and the pictures show how. But what things go into the making! Somewhere in the jumbled heap are churches, monuments, the leaning tower of Pisa, a seated buddha, one of those huge Easter Island faces, suburban villas, a bit of the Parthenon (maybe). Children might find other items. Weirdly, the scheme succeeds. Is there a message here? What comments from mechanically minded seven-year-olds whodo not suffer fromvertigo? Or others?
Cities in the Sea retells an old Welsh legend. King Gwyddno, mighty ruler of the many golden cities ("he has tamed the Earth and quelled the mighty sea") meets a pale disturbed, waif-like boy on the cliffs. The boy seems to be gazing at the dazzling kingdom, but all that he sees, he explains, are sea waves and sand. "You must be a poet," says the genial monarch, inviting the boy to sing at the royal feast that night. True, the vast domain is built on low-lying land but a high, thick wall protects it from the sea. Yet the boy's dream becomes fearsome dramatic fact.
The slightly bardic tone of the telling makes it a risk for reading aloud, but the plot could be the basis for an impromptu classroom play. Thefrieze-like pictures, in rich yet muted colours, are excellent.
Farming is a theme full of pitfalls. Even today, when facts abound in every medium, how many young people know the source of their hamburger? The Devon farm in Sam's Duck, where classes from city schools come for working holidays, is real enough (though surely better than many) for author Michael Morpurgo is describing his own farm.
City boy Sam is surprised to find that he is enjoying his farming work, all of it new to him. Only one of the darker sides of the industry comes his way - the cattle market, with its needless roughness and cruelties. His new-found sympathy with the creatures makes him buy a caged duck to save it from slaughter. It will be Grandad's birthday present. How does he hide the bird on the journey home? Well may you ask.
A nice ending, with something learnt: Grandad says that he would like it kept on the park lake with others of its kind. Keith Bowen's pictures of cow and pig are unsentimental, unflattering even. But thewhite bird has a natural beauty. The cover pictures would tempt any threeto seven-year-old tolook inside.