Children's books

21st April 2000 at 01:00

International children's book fair. Bologna, Italy.

Geraldine Brennan gets a sneak preview of forthcoming picture books If we need another millionaire, Ralph Steadman gets my vote. When the palate is in danger of becoming jaded through over-exposure to washed-out pastels, Steadman's inky-fingered picture book kicks it into shape. The parade of coloured ink creatures, each with a heroic black dot as a vital organ, suggests a joyful child let loose in a stationery cupboard.

The antics of the Dot who escapes from computers as soon as we switch off (to be published by Andersen Press this autumn) carry a profound message about electronic and print communication. Dot can only make his mark on the world with regular injections of ink. There is a rather thin supporting story about a Duchess, a Duke and his army, who are foils for Dot's chaotic progress as a tiger, an exotic bird, a reptile or simply a messy monster. Children will relish the most ink-spattered spreads, especially the one where Dot turns the Duke's troops, clad in shining white, into 101 dalmatians.

Real canines en masse, and a similar blast of joie de vivre, will arrive next year from Walker Books in Very Kind Rich Lady and 100 Dogs. This is a first British picture book by Chin Lun Lee, a Taiwanese artist married to a vet and over-run with pets. There are 100 mutts to count and 100 names to call out loudly (Crystal, Pretzel, Zabu - or make up your own) in one of the most attractive buys for pre-school and reception children on show at the fair. See also Olivia by Ian Falconer from Simon and Schuster - a zesty tale from a new artist about a pig who seeks and finds fame and adventure. Not so long to wait for this one: it's coming this autumn, as is Kipper's A to Z from Hodder Children's Books. This is a winner of an alphabet book starring Mick Inkpen's favourite dog, his friend Arnold and the ant, whose work is not over with the letter A. The silly but soothing Kipper-esque story built around the 26 letters becomes more engaging with constant repetition and will prevent interest flagging at around Q.

For the same age group, one of the most absorbing and witty visual narratives on show this year comes in an American import to be published by Viking this autumn, Ten Minutes Till Bedtime by Peggy Rathman (not to be confused with Fidget and Quilly Count Down to Bedtime on the Hodder list). Rathman's countdown for the boy getting ready for bed is also the "come in, your time is up" warning for the influx of hamsters who have turned his home into a theme park, enouraged by the resident hamster, who advertises "10-Minute Bedtime Tours" on the Internet. Besides the leading hamster party, numbered one to 12 for easy tracking (there's the one who keeps playing football and the one who keeps taking pictures), more are piling in by the coachload, even with only two minutes to go. The parents are oblivious, in the best tradition of Not Now Bernard, the classic picture book by David McKee.

Back to McKee's publisher, Andersen Press, for more of the secret life of children and their visiting creatures, good or evil. Paul Hess and Malachy Doyle, the team responsible for last year's wonderful picture book The Great Castle of Marshmangle, have come up with an autumn title, Hungry! Hungry! Hungy!, about a boy's game of cat and mouse with the "grisly, ghastly, goblin" who follows him into his neat suburban home. Boy and scrap-metal monster wreak havoc in the once orderly rooms, which take on a terrifying aspect through Paul Hess's fish-eye lens. A goldfish, an ornamental bust and the model on a magazine cover recoil from the clamour (reinforced by the hard-driving, rhythmic text) but the mother goes briskly about her business. The potential darkness in this tale gets a foot in the door but is sent packing on the final spread.

The Bird Man by Melvin Burgess and Ruth Brown (also Andersen Press) gives darkness free rein in a subtle fable about a masked bird-seller who uses his knowledge of human frailty to ensure that his birds are set free, or at least given the upper hand. The setting for Ruth Brown's atmospheric watercolours could be St Francis country. She portrays the bird man as one of a troupe of carnival players who sweep into town and move on, leaving lives changed and weaknesses exposed. This is a book for a contemplative child and can be enjoyed by older picture book readers.

Clarice Bean, the long-suffering heroine with the demanding family created by Lauren Child for Orchard Books, offers a lighter, breezier treat for upper primary fans who dream of renting their own loft and barring their parents. The second Clarice book, My Uncle is a Hunkle, introduces the American uncles: Ernie the New York cop who slips on a doughnut getting out of his squad car, and Ted the disaster-prone babysitting cowboy. Lost pets, angry neighbours, stray grandparents, brother Kurt with his "Shut Up and Go Away" T-shirt all wrapped up in fresh and lively artwork: it can't lose.

No upper (or lower) age limit for Anthony Browne's Willy's Pictures, to be published shortly by Walker. This is the final book about the chimp in the Fair Isle sweater, with a touching farewell from the artist on the final spread. Willy had an "artist dream" in Browne's 1998 book Willy the Dreamer, and this is the logical, mind-blowing extension: WillyBrowne's interpretation of great works from Botticelli, Raphael, Van Eyck (tragically, Willy's lost love Milly and the bully Buster Nose get hitched in "The Arnolfini Marriage"), Goya, Millet and others. While at the book fair, Browne picked up the Hans Christian Andersen award for lifetime achievement in illustration - the first Brit since Eleanor Farjeon to have won an Andersen award from the International Board on Books for the Young.

More dreams come true next year in his book for Walker: Beatle Day is a collaboration by Browne with Adrian Mitchell about Jenny, a Fab Four fan who meets her heartthrobs at London Zoo: "John, Paul and George Each gave me a kiss And tickets to hear them play But Ringo gave me a jellybean And I've kept it to this day".

Only a tantalising glimpse is available of next year's top picture book title from Viking, The Adventures of Bert by Allan Ahlberg and Raymond Briggs. Bert is one of Briggs's great heroic losers in the Gentleman Jim mould: he can't put his shirt on without something going dreadfully wrong. Ahlberg's words are few but his choices are impeccable. There's a Mrs Bert and a Baby Bert too, and readers will soon be gathered in droves into the bosom of the family. I can't wait.

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