Add a flavour of fairytale;Children in wartime;Books
There's no blueprint for making a lasting picture book, though a few do appear now and then. Quality counts, of course; an alliance of text and pictures is important, as is something unique in both. There must be an original idea, no matter how seemingly slight.
Authors and artists who are aware of the young child's unconventional view of what's fact and what's magic can draw on the furthest reaches of fantasy and on the whatever seems most homely, small and near.
Whatever the scene and cast, at the centre of the best stories is a human situation, as real to the two to five-year-old as to its seniors.
A Little Bit of Winter by Paul Stewart, illustrated by Chris Riddell (Andersen pound;8.99) is a little treasure of a book with an enviably original idea. As Hedgehog seeks out his winter sleeping place, he wonders what winter is like. So he leaves a message on a tree asking Rabbit to keep him "a piece of winter" for when he wakes.
It's a snowy day when Rabbit finds the message. An idea comes to him. Will it work? It does. When spring arrives and Hedgehog returns, there is his piece of winter. What is it? The good text - particularly the dialogue - and the pictures (best of Hedgehog writing the message) should please three to five-year-olds.
Bunny My Honey by Anita Jeram (Walker pound;9.99) is the perfect book for one very young child to share (and re-share) with Mum. Mummy Bunny and Honey Bunny love each other. Mummy shows Honey how to do special rabbity things. But one day Honey is lost. Oh, how could such a bad thing happen? The great trees look so frightening. This is the thrillingly anxious part which seasoned listeners wait for, knowing that Mummy will soon find Honey. She does. And what a reunion! The beguiling, expressive pictures deserve special praise. They do more than complement the text - they present the sweet (even soppy) sentiment totally but, fused with their hidden wit, they are a continual delight.
A quick leap to Malachy Doyle and Paul Hess's The Great Castle of Marshmangle (Andersen pound;9.99). That is what Grand-daddy, who might have stepped straight out of Irish folklore, calls his small thatched cottage where the five-year-old boy narrator goes to spend the night. Grand-daddy gives names to everything - the stairs, the fire, the hen, the cow, the cat, and all. This makes communication slow but intriguing, even tuneful. Within the Castle every small event has the flavour of fairy-tale. The blunt, colourful, hilarious pictures reflect the manic cheer of this heady yet dreamlike experience.
In Mr Wolf's Pancakes by Jan Fearnley (Egmont pound;9.99), Mr Wolf seeks pancake-making advice from Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, and other storybook characters but is rudely rebuffed. After Wolf has at last puzzled over a recipe book, the delicious smell draws the unkind lot to his door. "No," he says reasonably. "You did not help me." "We'll help you now to eat them," is the crude reply as they advance on the piled-up dish.
"Mr Wolf thought for a moment. There was only one decent thing to do." Gobble up all the invaders, and settle down quietly to his hard-won feast. Since he is clearly the story's hero (and why not?), a nice piece of moral-mazery arises, even at infant level. The debate could go on for hours.
Cinderella, in all of its world-wide variants, is still the great classic wish-fulfilment tale. Our own familiar version is Perrault-based. But English popular taste too often turns the sisters into pantomime grotesques. Haughty they may be, but vulgarly comic, no. Nothing of Disney or pantomime touches an attractive new Cinderella illustrated by Ooek Koopmans (North South pound;9.99). It, too, is Perrault-based but the pictures hold the subtleties. The sisters' faces, for instance, show a gradual growth of interest, even goodwill, towards their prospering junior.
Cinders herself has style, with her neat pale hair and face and long plain black dress. The godmother is - surprise! - a beshawled peasant woman. The ballgown she provides, though, is like a vast glittering flame-gold cloud, almost hiding the wearer. A real bonus comes when the Prince takes Cinders back to the palace, not in a lumbering carriage, but on the back of a flying horse. Splendidly they race across the sky.