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Orange bears and heroic ducks

The Orchard ABC. Orchard Books Pounds 8.99. 1 85213 473 9. Ian Beck's Picture Book. Andre Deutsch Children's Books Pounds 9.99. 0 590 54088 2. Peter and the Wolf. Doubleday Pounds 8.99. 0 385 40343 7, Corgi Audio Pounds 3.49. Away in a Manger, Orion Children's Books Pounds 9.99. 1 85881 0817

Brian Alderson celebrates the charm and simplicity of Ian Beck's picture books.

Anyone wanting to demonstrate stylistic variations in painting could do worse than turn to contemporary picture books. Year by year they are published in their hundreds and such is the sophistication of modern colour printing that no graphic design is too elaborate for the machines. Virtuoso painting is everywhere and contemporary illustrators seem to be vying with each other in the delicacy, precision and dramatic intensity of their brushwork. Everything from pseudo-medieval miniatures to hectic surrealism can be had for the asking.

Bucking this trend in extenso is the illustrator Ian Beck, who, in the past few months has had three new picture books published, together with a Christmas novelty. Two of his picture books are of the simplest: The Orchard ABC and Ian Beck's Picture Book; a first book of pictures for very young children; one is a nursery-tale, Peter and the Wolf with an accompanying tape of Prokofiev's music played by the Czech Radio Orchestra, with Ian Beck himself telling the story; and the novelty book is a "carousel" version of the first Christmas, Away in a Manger. You fold the board covers back on themselves to make a scenic display of four three-dimensional tableaux - inn, shepherds, wise-men, stable - each with a little caption below and the title of a Christmas carol above.

There is no denying that all these books by Ian Beck, like their dozen or so predecessors, rejoice in colour. As an illustrator, he likes to frame his pictures on the page, and within the frames he gives us big, striking images with little resort to white space. But the foundation of his pictures is their drawn outlines, and their substance is not the colour so much as the omnipresent cross-hatched shading. "I is for Imp and Ink" - and the energy of the little man flicking gouts of blue-black into the air from a huge paint-brush derives not just from the design but from the solid shading of ink-bottle and shadows and the curvaceous accentuation of the imp's body and his ginger hair.

Beck's drawing and simple, flat colouring in all these books is highly traditional. Some people have labelled it "Laura Ashley" or said that it will do admirably for designing babies' quilts, but, by comparison with a lot of the graphic experimentation that goes on - picture books as ego-trips - its unaffected plainness is quietly satisfying. The simplicity of the technique goes back almost two hundred years - but, more directly, these books owe a debt to the nursery artists of the thirties and especially to Harold Jones, whose exploitation of pastel juxtapositions and pen-drawn shading are replicated in many Beck drawings.

The ABC and the Picture Book are typical examples. They are set in an idealised landscape of clear skies and pristine seas; suns, with Mr Therm aureoles, smile down upon sharply conical green hills, begirt with stylised triangular poplars; orange teddy-bears and heroic ducklings (favourite Beck motifs) abound. Indeed, it is only the consistency of style and the repetition of imagery that give these books their unity, for otherwise the highly disparate subject matter would make them seem merely arbitrary agglomerations. The Picture Book especially has a random air to it (how did he arrive at the words and their sequencing: "book . . . garden . . . ball . . . house . . . flowers . . . "?) although the recurrent presence of an androgynous child in a jump-suit does give a sort of continuity.

With Peter and the Wolf, however, the narrative imposes a focus and the charm of Beck's work takes on a striking aptness. Winter glitter replaces the cheerful suns, and the pantomime characters are present with a purpose: Peter in his red jacket, set off against the snow and the frost; a tremendous stalking cat; a dramatic wolf; and - hooray! - the obligatory duck. What's more, with his playful use of borders for the text - with appropriate musical instruments set into floral patterns - Ian Beck rounds out his performance with a completeness that he has not achieved so well before. Harold Jones, I am sure, would have loved it.

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