Old-fashioned rudery

Raymond Briggs

Raymond Briggs on the familiar and the unexpected in picture books. School, By Colin and Jacqui Hawkins, Collins Pounds 8.99. 0 00 193857 6

The Rascally Cake, By Jeanne Willis and Korky Paul, Andersen Press Pounds 7.99 0 86264 477 1

Baby Crow, By John A Rowe, North-South Pounds 9.95. 1 55858 277 0

Sam Who Was Swallowed by a Shark By Phyllis Root and Axel Scheffler Walker Pounds 7.99. 0 7445 3223 X

The Iron Needle, By Amanda Harvey, Macmillan Pounds 7.99. 0 333 58765 0

Way Home, By Libby Hathorn and Gregory Rogers, Andersen Pounds 8.99. 0 86264 541 7

School by Colin and Jacqui Hawkins is a jolly comic cuts book, full of ancient jokes and rude rhymes, about how to survive at school. There are spots, pus, zits, nits, bogeys, worms, cheesy feet, BO, cabbage, custard, belching and "flatulence". Curiously, the word fart does not appear.

Despite this broadmindedness, the book has an oddly old-fashioned air. Teachers wear tweed jackets, the children are all in uniforms with leather satchels and everyone wears a tie, even the girls. References are made to syrup of figs, and even caster oil, which could have come out of the a 1950s Beano. There is a guide to different types of teacher and how to deal with them and some sensible digs against stupid kids who smoke. It is all good, fairly clean, fun.

The Rascally Cake is nastier and much less funny. The cake contains a cowpat, rotten eggs, spider's legs, blubber, bones and a tramp's sock, scabs from a school boy's knees, fingernail clippings, several snotty handkerchiefs and a jug of spit. All this might be bearable if the hero chef was likeable, but he is even more horrific than his ingredients. The cake comes alive and crawls out of its "reeking dustbin" with skeletal bones protruding as limbs from its mass of shapeless jelly. An elephantine trunk grows and on its end is an open, red-lipped mouth with fangs.

Baby Crow lives on a tree with other crows who wear hats and medals for their singing. Grandfather Crow had been a famous opera singer but Baby Crow has no voice. The haunting pictures are rich in colour and tone and have a dream-like reality. They have some of the formality of gallery paintings as there is usually a single, simple image against flat background.

The book is sightly marred by the monotony of its design as the pictures are all the same size and always on the right, and the text, set in massive bold caps, is always on the left. Even so, it is a most unusual book.

In Sam Who Was Swallowed by a Shark, Sam, like Ratty, is a river rat with boats on the brain. He builds one in his garden despite his neighbours tut-tutting about the neglect of his house. He works on it all through the winter snows and in the spring sails down the river and out to sea.

After many weeks, a seagull delivers a note from Sam telling his neighbours he is happy, but when he still does not return, Mrs Seednibbler says he must have been eaten by a shark At first reading, the book seems inconsequential. The naive pictures are so quiet and undramatic and almost nothing happens, yet the reader is left wondering, was Sam swallowed by a shark, or is he still happily sailing the ocean blue?

In The Iron Needle, Elizabeth loses her needle and goes down to the iron foundry to make a new one. She works there all day and returns home to embroider a happy birthday sampler for her mother.

The sketchy water colours are nowhere near capable of depicting the inside of an iron foundry. The iron workers are very generalised and they nearly all look like women. And why does everyone wear pointed cloth bags on their feet?

Way Home by Libby Hathorn and Rogers is set at night in the horrific shanty town of a vast metropolis. Ruinous slums fill the foreground while palisades of glittering skyscrapers blot out the stars.

Shane befriends a stray kitten and makes his way home with it tucked inside his jacket. He escapes a street gang by flinging himself into the maelstrom of cars. He looks at the Jags in a car showroom, pauses for a word with a friendly prostitute, then stares hungrily into a restaurant.

A wild dog attacks him, so he climbs a tree. There he gazes at the landscape of skyscrapers, all blazing with light and all empty. Shane runs down an alleyway, wriggles through a fence and into a burrow made of boxes and newspapers. He is home.

The writing is slangy, tough and vivid. The pictures are powerful, realistic and very convincing. Altogether, Way Home is a terrific book.

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Raymond Briggs

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