Children's literature: colour draws out the action

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
Here are three books with distinguished illustrations. Two have a text to match. The Australian Caleb is reminiscent of the work of the great Edward Gorey, both in concept and in execution: the curiously sinister Caleb van Doorn, depicted in meticulous cross-hatched pen drawings with odd angles and creepy shadows, is a kind of were-insect, and vanishes under curiously sinister circumstances.

The concept is carried through with exactly the right degree of camp solemnity, and the artwork demonstrates that there's no substitute for accurate drawing, no matter how intricate the surface texture.

Steven Woolman's illustrations are excellent, and the delicate chalk drawings in the background of each page provide a silent commentary on the action: when Miss Emily also vanishes (in curiously sinister circumstances,naturally) we see a sequence of strenuous and murderous insect matings. Just what part did Caleb play in poor Miss Emily's death? We guess and shiver. Quite what audience this book expects is hard to say, but I enjoyed it enormously, and so will anyone who's allowed to stay up and watch The X-Files.

Peter Ss is an artist whose natural medium might well be scrimshaw. His line has an etched and wiry quality that suited his A Small Tall Tale from the Far, Far North very well, and works just as expressively here in Starry Messenger, his story of Galileo.Barefoot Books has gone to town with the production, too; it's a very handsome piece of work. The subtly coloured large illustrations on each spread contain a multitude of details,some of them having a "Where's Wally?" flavour: in a sea of anonymous faces, Galileo's is the one looking in another direction and watching the swing of the pendulum. The narrative proceeds not only in a single line but also through a series of commentaries, in this case written in that wiry scrimshaw style above and around the text.

When it works this method is truly polyphonic, but it can easily degenerate into a chaos of distracting bittiness. Here it does work, because it's kept firmly under the control of a clear organising mind. It's good to see this subject treated properly, too. Galileo is one of the most attractive of intellectual heroes; "But it does move" might be apocryphal, but it will do very well as the motto of every sensible human being who has to deal with fanatics.

The Sea of Tranquility is in one way easy to talk about: the pictures are lovely. Big spreads with soft colours lushly applied over skilful drawing - what more could anyone want?

Well, a story, perhaps. In this one, there was once a boy who dreamed of going to the Moon and then he watched the Moon landings on television and now he's grown up he still thinks about it. And that's it.

Stories about people thinking about other people doing things are one narrative layer away from where they should be. The result is what I can only describe as a coffee-table children's book: something for adults to display admiringly. A child who's really interested in the Moon will be much happier with a dry-as-dust volume of astronomical facts and measurements, even if the pictures aren't as pretty.

Philip Pullman has won a Smarties Gold Award for his novel The Firework-Maker's Daughter (Doubleday)

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