A surprise on every page

1st April 2005 at 01:00
Ted Dewan enjoys tales of the unexpected that carry subtle messages

Traction Man is Here

By Mini Grey

Jonathan Cape pound;10.99

The Sea Monster

By Chris Wormell

Jonathan Cape pound;10.99

Rodeo Ron and his Milkshake Cows

By Rowan Clifford The Bodley Head pound;10.99

Who's Got Game? Poppy or the Snake?

Illustrations by Pascal LeMaitre

Text by Toni and Slade Morrison

Simon Schuster pound;11.99

Forget "back to normal" or even "happily ever after": I like the path of a story to keep me guessing. Here are four well-crafted examples of unpredictability and subtle moral landscaping in picture book form.

Traction Man is Here follows Mini Grey's prizewinning Biscuit Bear in another tale of an inanimate object's secret life and peril. Hyperbolically square-jawed Traction Man, an adventure doll with an impressive wardrobe of smart man-of-action outfits, performs daring deeds with courage and gallantry. The text is the voice of the boy owner's imagination, while the pictures make it clear that a full kitchen sink makes a murky undersea world, and trainers have been brought into play as rockets.

The hero's greatest challenge is bearing the humiliation of Grandma's green hand-knitted outfit, horribly itchy and as deeply embarrassing as only a semi-skilled granny could possibly make it. Grey has taken a child's wide-awake passion and imagination and gene-spliced it with an urbane wit.

In this way, she is every youngster's dream of an adult: in cahoots with the kids but operating at full power as a storyteller and artist. Traction Man is Here, her fourth book, subtly combines ink, watercolour, and computer scans to tell a story with a deep tread and a culty edge. And yes, it's clearly for both boys and girls.

Chris Wormell has created a third idiosyncratic "philosophical" picture book to line up alongside The Big Ugly Monster and the Little Stone Rabbit and the highly acclaimed Two Frogs. The Sea Monster is simply a tale of karma: of an enormous creature who bears witness to a young boy's peril at sea and manages to prevent him from drowning.

Far from being sentimental, enlightened self-interest on the part of all three characters makes this a more believable and powerful tale. The sea monster prevents a boy from drowning, but manages to keep the toy boat whose escape led to the boy's peril. The lonely old man gains companionship by rescuing the boy. And the boy receives a new model boat from the old man.

It is curiously reminiscent of Idries Shah's Sufi stories for "priming" the mind, absent of a firm moral, but very vivid philosophical models. Wormell, a master of many artistic styles, uses the sharp-edged, subtly toned watercolour technique used in the other "philosophical" picture books.

Rowan Clifford's Rodeo Ron and His Milkshake Cows, with its retro-looking heavy black crayon outline-and-wash style, could be mistaken for propaganda commissioned by the Milk Marketing Board, but it's unlikely that the weird genius of this story could ever have been hatched by anything but an individual quirky imagination. Rodeo Ron rides into Cavity, a Wild West town with a belching epidemic and dental hygiene problem on account of the inhabitants' fizzy drink vice. With his herd of milkshake-squirting cows, each one a living example of "you are what you eat", Rodeo Ron takes on the local soda-pop mafia in a taste-test showdown.

The soda popsters land on their own sword, literally exploding under the pressure from burp gases. The text's fun rap rhythm takes Rodeo Ron far beyond other nutrition picture book stories. Spinach has Popeye; now milk has Rodeo Ron.

Finally, Toni and Slade Morrison have set an Aesop fable in the deep American South of the mid-20th century, recreating the atmosphere of an Uncle Remus story. Who's Got Game? Poppy or the Snake? is illustrated by Pascal LeMaitre in comics form, using a scrawly line and deep unsaturated computer-generated earth tones. Poppy, the storyteller, describes to his grandson the time he pinned a snake beneath the wheel of his pick-up truck.

The snake, having promised in exchange for his freedom never even to think about biting Poppy, uses guilt as a way of insinuating himself into Poppy's domestic life.

Although the tale is surprisingly (and refreshingly) pessimistic about the nurture nature debate, it also highlights the value of a highly sensitive attention. Poppy's "remembering boots", made up of some very familiar-looking snakeskin, help him to remember the thing that saved his own life: paying close attention to the snake's subtle use of language.

Budding lawyers take note. But beware: unless you can fake even a half-convincing southern States accent, don't attempt to read this one aloud.

Ted Dewan's picture books include the Bing Bunny series (David Fickling Books pound;4.99 each) and Crispin, the Pig who Had it All (Doubleday Pounds 4.99)

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