Adele Geras finds books with the sort of appeal that wins readers before they've even read a word
Lyra's Oxford By Philip Pullman. Engravings by John Lawrence. David Fickling Books pound;9.99.
The Tale of Tales By Tony Mitton. Illustrated by Peter Bailey. David Fickling Books pound;12.99.
The Stolen Childhood By Carol Ann Duffy. Illustrated by Jane Ray. Puffin pound;7.99.
The Little Cat Baby By Allan Ahlberg. Illustrated by Fritz Wegner. Viking pound;7.99.
Very often, the way a book looks is what tempts a child to pick it up and read it. All those mentioned here are beautiful and would be additions to a school or class library which would never be left neglected on the shelf. They would all also make wonderful presents.
The Pullman is small, bound in silky fabric of exactly the right shade of red, and enhanced by glorious engravings by John Lawrence. These include a fold-out map of "Lyra's Oxford" which will entrance readers long after they've finished the story, a postcard, and various advertisements filled with references to the world of the Dark Materials trilogy (and at least one good in-joke).
The story is short, exciting and atmospheric. Lyra is at St Sophia's College after parting from Will at the end of The Amber Spyglass. Her daemon, Pantalaimon, is with her and together they solve a little mystery which is self-contained, but which might well lead to other things in a longer book. Pullman allows himself the possibility of expanding in all sorts of directions, and lovers of the trilogy can go through the text making a mental note of themes and plot possibilities that may occur again.
Birds play an important part in this story, and the description of a flight of starlings on page 5 is quite perfect. A book to return to, and to treasure.
Tony Mitton's The Tale of Tales deliberately echoes Kipling's Just So Stories, with old-fashioned silhouettes illustrating the journey of various creatures to hear the very best story in the world, due to be told this very day. The animals, in best Chaucerian tradition, decide to tell some stories of their own as they go. These have Peter Bailey's more characteristic illustrations and he's a master at introducing a spooky edge to innocuous-seeming scenes.
Mitton is well known as a poet and the animals' "tales" are in verse. Some, such as Rip van Winkle and the Anansi story, are familiar. Others are invented by Mitton and they're all lively and engaging. Be warned though: the ending might be a let-down after the build-up. Perhaps the moral is: beware of hype.
Carol Ann Duffy, one of our best poets, has adapted fairy tales for the stage. Here she imagines new tales for the modern child which have all the darkness of the traditional kind. The title story is perhaps the best, with the stepmother, "silent as poison", cutting the shadow from her stepdaughter in order to steal the girl's youth and beauty for herself.
Duffy's prose is clear and full of memorable images, and the inimitable Jane Ray has provided a silhouette to illustrate each story and a most magical cover image.
Fritz Wegner creates a wonderfully detailed Victorian world for Ahlberg's strange and delicious tale of a nameless woman and man who pick a cat baby from Nurse Doodle's babyshop. The adventures of this creature are both entertaining and slightly unnerving. The strangeness is accounted for by Ahlberg's recurring assertion that "in those days" the times were "topsy-turvy". It's a lovely book for cat lovers, baby lovers and lovers of Ahlberg's unusual and enchanting imagination.
Adele Geras's latest book is Apricots at Midnight (Barn Owl Books pound;4.99)