Children's books

27th April 2001 at 01:00
Geraldine Brennan steps into a cave of delights at the Bologna Book Fair.

The failure of parents to evolve at the same speed as their children has generated acres of literature, and it's a long-standing social problem. In Raymond Briggs's forthcoming picture book, Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age, a forward-thinking, inquisitive child is ridiculed by his family and friends for his outlandish ideas: they could cook the dead animals on the fire, he proposes, build a house with windows and skin a woolly mammoth to make soft trousers. But his dad, Dug, mother, Dugs, and friend, Ag, are happy to go on, well, living in caves, until Ug drags them, kicking and screaming, towards progress.

There's only one Flintstones-style joke in this book, but it's a joke that works many times. Ug, to be published by Jonathan Cape this autumn, is Briggs's first picture book for children for five years, and a title that fans of The Snowman and The Bear can grow into.

Next to Jonathan Cape's home on the Random HouseTransworld stand at Bologna was Briggs's collaboration with Allan Ahlberg for Penguin Books, The Adventures of Bert (Viking). This picture chapter book, aimed at a slightly younger audience than Ug (starting at pre-school) but capable of drawing in struggling early readers over some years, generated excitement at last year's book fair in early proof form. Now it's here in the flesh, to be published in September with Further Adventures of Bert coming next year. Not a lot happens (Bert gets lost, gets a dog, eats a bag of crisps, wakes up Mrs Bert and Baby Bert) but it happens to great effect.

These are all books about a series of tiny but illuminating breakthroughs, and my favourite on the autumn Viking list, Baloney (from that other dream picture book team, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith), offers another Eureka! moment with its revelation for new or struggling readers that you can grasp a story before you understand every word.

Henry P Baloney needs a good excuse for being late or he will get Permanent Lifelong Detention from Miss Bugscuffle. He spins a yarn about mislaying his zimulis, being whisked away by torakku and erasing his sighing flosser pordu lock. It all makes sense to someone (the mystery words in Scieszka's text are all in use in other languages), but it may not all make sense at once. This is a picture book about words as intriguing collectables for the reader rather than terrifying obstacles. While the text is truly at the heart of the book, the cutting-edge artwork from Lane Smith is essential to sell the unlikely tale, and funky enough to lure older readers.

Helen Cooper's Tatty Ratty (forthcoming from Doubleday) is another tall story which, as in Baloney, takes flight in the pictures. As a little girl imagines her lost toy whirling through time, space and story until he can find his way home, Cooper conjures up a different world on each spread: a spaceship; a pirate galleon; all-day breakfast at the Three Bears' cottage. Parents and child negotiate to embellish the story until Tatty Ratty can bow out gracefully or return for his next life (he must have at least nine). This one has a wider than expected age range with its opportunities for older children to be one step ahead of the story and, as in Cooper's classy award-winning Pumpkin Soup, the images repay countless revisits.

Bologna is primarily a picture book fair, but a healthy trade in fiction rights has been building up and I've come away with a long list of novels to look forward to this autumn, besides Michael Rosen's enticing life of Shakespeare for Walker, illustrated by Robert Ingpen.

Sonya Hartnett, the Australian author of slick, chilly psychological thrillers for teenagers, is at last being published in the UK with Walker bringing out Thursday's Child in November. Walker also has a sequel to Anthony Horowitz's bestselling Stormbreaker, called Point Blanc. Advance copies of Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl, a boy's story of first love, disappeared from the Orchard Books stand faster than the free espresso at the illustrators' gallery.

From Penguin there's an intriguing US import, You Don't Know Me by David Klass, which details 14-year-old John's abuse at the hands of "the man who is not my father", a new Morris Gleitzman Puffin title (Kids Only, set in an adults-only "paradise island" resort with a darker side that reveals itself only to children) and a forthcoming reading list of fiction on citizenship themes. Macmillan has Waking Dream, a new novel from Hex trilogy author Rhiannon Lassiter, and next year promises Straw Girl by Jackie Kay, and eight as yet unrevealed titles on the new Young Picador list of fiction for 12 to 15-year-olds, which will line up next to the Collins Flamingo list, launched next month. Hodder Children's Books also has a new autumn imprint for teenagers called Bite, plus a long-awaited new novel for 11-plus readers by Hilary McKay, Saffy's Angel.

For confident younger readers, there's a strong class library fiction series exploiting the comic potential of ancient Rome (Ann Jungman introduces Twittus, Clottus, Bacillus and Tertius for Aamp;C Black), and ancient Egypt (Philip Wooderson's Nile Files for Orchard Books follows the adventures of trader's son Ptoni and his cat Ptiddles).

Random House has Flying Foxes, a new "faction" paperback series which promises strong stories to introduce newly confident readers to concepts in science and mathematics.

Sharon Creech's novel Ruby Holler (Bloomsbury) will be near the top of my list in 2002. But, first, this autumn Creech publishes Love That Dog (Bloomsbury), Jack's diary of his initially unwilling participation in Miss Stretchberry's life-changing poetry class, told through his poems. William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, William Blake and Walter Dean Myers are among the poets who have their parts to play in this account of another series of infinitesimal breakthroughs.

Even if boys who recoil from poetry cannot be persuaded to tackle a book that looks like another book of poems, their teachers could try it: it might do the trick.

More Bologna highlights on

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