Bright ideas

24th February 2006 at 00:00
Jane Doonan looks at picture books that do something different

Orange Pear Apple Bear By Emily Gravett Macmillan pound;6.99

Sweets By Sylvia van Ommen WingedChariot Press pound;7.99

Ask Me By Antje Damm Frances Lincoln Children's Books pound;9.99

Baby Brains Superstar By Simon James Walker Books pound;10.99

Hit the Ball Duck By Jez Alborough HarperCollins pound;10.99

When a Zeeder met a Xyder By Malachy Doyle and Joel Stewart Doubleday Pounds 10.99

Whatever By William Bee Walker Books pound;9.99

Charlie Cook's Favourite Book By Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler Macmillan pound;10.99

The picture books in this collection go off the well-worn track a little, in story, style or structure, extending reading experiences for young explorers. The first three, for the youngest pupils, are in small format just right for close sharing or private "reading".

Emily Gravett creates Orange Pear Apple Bear from the title's four nouns and one interjection, a grainy contour line and a dabble of organic hues.

She juggles these few words and images in a flow of combinations to make a rhyming text, an extended joke and a surprise ending for a brief, satisfying tale. It also encourages play with number, and learning word recognition.

Sylvia van Ommen's debut picturebook, Sweets is in effect a miniature playscript, a dialogue between a cat and rabbit, best of friends. They meet in the park, and over shared sweets and a drink, a chat develops about where you go when you are dead. Is there a heaven? How do you meet your friends there? How do you recognise each other? Will there be sweets in heaven? To be on the safe side they make plans for every contingency. The illustrations in black line couldn't be simpler, the characters couldn't be more endearing, and there's not a whisker of sentimentality. The publisher specialises in European picture books in translation, with support materials on

Antje Damm is a German architect who knows how to build big ideas from small blocks of material. Her chunky little book, Ask Me, is worth its weight in gold. Every double spread displays a simple question on the left hand page: for example, "How do you make people laugh?"; "Do you have a secret?"; "What noises do you hear every morning?" On the right, a picture acts as a prompt. Every young viewer will have different answers to all the questions, every page turn can start a new discussion, every text page is in a different colour, and every illustration is in a different style from the one before.

Baby Brains Superstar, written and composed with a nifty pen and dashing brush by Simon James, is centred on an off-beat idea. Baby Brains is a musical genius. He plays any instrument, sings with perfect pitch, and his talent is spotted before he's out of his Babygro suit. He gets signed up for a debut rock concert, is flown to the venue, and is cheered by thousands of fans. Suddenly the infant prodigy loses his nerve: he wants his mummy. Ironically, his frantic wailing creates a world hit. What a performance.

Reading books in a series gives special pleasure, and here's one for Jez Alborough's Duck fans. Hit the Ball Duck rolls along as effortlessly as the vintage sports car which takes him and his friends into the countryside to play cricket. In no time, Duck loses the ball, gloves, bat, and his temper.

Frog, who was deemed to be too small to play, saves the day: a satisfying theme for playground tadpoles. Alborough's text in rhythm and rhyme encourages emergent readers, while his cartooning scores a succession of sixes in vigorous line and robust colour.

The next two books could encourage excursions into the narrative poems of Edward Lear and Hilaire Belloc. Malachy Doyle's nonsense verse, When a Zeeder met a Xyder, is about two lonely creatures looking for company of their own kind. Xyderzee lives on a mountain top; he's tall, green and hairy. Zeederzoo lives by the sea; she's small, blue, and bald. It takes some exhausting footwork before they realise that looks don't matter. Joel Stewart portrays them as gentle blobs endowed with speaking expression in a world of beautiful subtle dappled colour. The book's tall, narrow format underpins the protagonists' vertiginous journeys.

Whatever is William Bee's cautionary tale of Billy, who is difficult to please. The dimensions of a giraffe or a butterfly, the excitements of the world's bounciest castle or steamiest train, are all "whatever" to Billy.

But a tongue-in-cheek warning awaits in the form of the world's hungriest tiger. William Bee has a terrific sense of page design, and the images, in flat saturated colour and black sited on unworked white space, have a hard-edged graphic elegance and wit.

Children in Years 3 to 5 could appreciate Charlie Cook's Favourite Book, from the starry Gruffalo creators Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, and teachers might like to adapt it for a project. The real book is made up from extracts from 11 imaginary books of different genres. Charlie's favourite book is about a pirate, whose favourite tale is about Goldilocks, who's reading "Baby Bear's Annual", and so on. The text sails along in rhythm and rhyme, the pictures reward many revisits, and the whole approach shows that reading words and images can be very good fun.

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