Children's Literature

31st March 1995 at 01:00
Blodin the Beast. By Michael Morpurgo Illustrated by Christina Balit Frances Lincoln #163;8.99. 0 7112 0850 6. The Monkey and the Panda, by Antonia Barber. Illustrated by Meilo So Frances Lincoln, #163;8.99. 0 7112 0901 4. The Twelve Poodle Princesses, Written and illustrated by Jan Pancheri Hutchinson #163;8.99. 0 09 176710 5 Age range: 5 to 11.

Blodin the Beast is rare among children's picture books in its skilful blend of word and picture, evidently based on an integral conception which the author and artist share. Michael Morpurgo, storyteller and moral philosopher, is known for his poetic imagery and terse style. Here he presents an old theme of a young boy's quest to save his people from a dragon-like beast who "drinks only oil and breathes only fire". With the aid of a magic carpet woven by the wise Shanga, the boy journeys alone and finally conquers evil: so triumphs the wisdom of age and the courage of youth.

This apparently simple story is delightfully illustrated by Christina Balit, an accomplished artist and teacher whose dramatic pictures betray her versatility as both actor and playwright. Here she combines wide undulating vistas with intricate collage-type miniatures - like a gaudy red carpet against an expansive sun-scorched plain - thereby drawing attention to the magical amidst the mundane. One curious aspect of the book is the relegation of women to the role of bystanders or porters for the men.

Not so evident in integral conception is The Monkey and the Panda, despite being competently told by Antonia Barber and illustrated in gentle,subtle brushstrokes by the Hong Kong artist Meilo So. The story features a lively, lean monkey and a friendly, fat panda between whom villagers have to choose - which is more useful? A wise old monk finally convinces them that every creature, fat and thin, funny and grave, is worthy in its own right.

A book written and illustrated by the same person has no problem of unshared ambition; yet so often the gifts of artist and wordsmith are not evenly matched. So with Jan Pancheri's first book, The Twelve Poodle Princesses - an amusing perversion of the Grimms' "Twelve Dancing Princesses", with an apt twist in the tail as our hero spurns the royal prize to wed his mongrel bitch. Pancheri the artist has a deft irreverent touch, is bold and witty, but as storyteller is rather verbose and stumbles over the transition from traditional to modern. Beware of tinkering with beloved old fairy tales!

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