Children's books: Read it any way you want

25th April 2003 at 01:00

The most talked-about book at Bologna this month was not, strangely enough, Madonna's first picture book ( The English Roses , a story of five friends, to be published sumptuously by Puffin in September). It wasn't even Philip Pullman's elegant short story, Lyra's Oxford , which will be published at the end of October by David Fickling Books complete with John Lawrence's map of landmarks in the Dark Materials trilogy.

The winner of the overall Bologna Ragazzi prize was Raymond Queneau's Exercices de Style (published in France by Gallimard Jeunesse), a strange and wonderful book that shows there are at least 99 ways to tell a story.

It takes two simple scenes: on a hot day in Paris, a young man on a bus accuses another passenger of jostling him, then later meets another man who points out a lost button on his coat. He then serves up the same incidents repeatedly, with illustrations by 99 artists, including familiar UK names (Satoshi Kitamura, Quentin Blake, Colin McNaughton).

Primary pupils will recognise some of his tools as he rewrites in reported speech, in the style of a book blurb, and an official letter. You can also have your bare narrative bones fleshed out as a comedy in three acts, as a sonnet or ode, in what translates as Cockney rhyming slang or "gastronomic" style: "After slowly roasting in the browned butter of the sun, I finally managed to get on to a pistachio bus."

And the ingenious page layout means you can sample any illustration with any version of the story. Please, somebody, publish the excellent translation soon so the man on the Paris omnibus can hop on Eurostar.

More from the Bologna children's books fair in this week's TES


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