Confused? You will be

21st November 1997 at 00:00

THE VIKING SAGA OF HARRI BRISTLEBEARD. THE LOST TREASURE OF CAPTAIN BLOOD. Jonathon Stroud. Illustrated by Cathy Gale. Walker Pounds 9.99 each.

SNAKES AND LADDERS (AND HUNDREDS OF MICE). Piers Harper. Walker Pounds 9.99.

HAUNTED CASTLE:An Interactive Adventure Book. Leo Hartas. Dorling Kindersley. Pounds 9.99.

Chris Stephenson is mesmerised by picture puzzle books

There can be few children who have gone through primary school over the past 10 years without looking for Wally. The nerdy-looking character in the bobble hat and red-and-white striped jersey is to be found wherever children's books are sold, but is there a place for him in the class library?

The first four Wally books have just been republished in new editions, and, at a cursory glance, the literacy experience they offer seems slight. The point of reading them is to find Wally and a string of associated characters and objects hidden away in a loosely linked series of frantically busy crowd scenes. Brief sections of textual instruction and exhortation in "ripping yarns" style make mildly amusing play with alliteration - in The Fantastic Journey, a place of "much menace" harbours "a multitude of malevolent monsters", but there is only the flimsiest of plots, and minimal development of character.

The strongest storyline puts Wally himself in the reader's role as seeker. Hewe must find Wizard Whitebeard's 12 scrolls in order to discover the truth about himself. This turns out to be a whole pageful of Wallies, revealing that Wally is "just one Wally among many", and the search goes on for the reader to find the "real" Wally, now identified as the one with the missing shoe. It's a literary joke made visual; and visual literacy is what these books are chiefly about.

Margaret Meek remarks in On Being Literate (Bodley Head) how "Children treat pictures in books with a kind of searching wonder", whereas most adult readers can't wait to get on with the story. Certainly the children I have seen poring over Wally display infinite fascination and persistence. At the same time they are making their own stories out of what they see, pointing out fresh discoveries to one another, developing more or less systematic approaches to problem-solving, learning visual discrimination, and honing the spatial awareness skills beloved of non-verbal intelligence test setters.

Like the language of maths, the pictorial language of Wally is accessible to all. The scenes are either pure fantasy (monsters and magic carpets in the latest Wonder Book), popular historical (Where's Wally Now?), everyday (Where's Wally?) or exotic (In Hollywood) locations, all a-buzz with activity and incident. Alone or in a group, even a child who is unable to decipher print can enjoy "reading" Wally.

Various recent puzzle-book titles from Walker take the "picture search" idea a step or two further. For the tinies, Snakes and Ladders literally flips the traditional idea of a book upon its head. In this bright and breezy combination of board game and "spot the object" the reader must turn the pages up and down calendar-wise to negotiate the way to the top of "Tottering Tower" to rescue a cat, while simultaneously searching for the belongings of various white mice en route. Once the game is done there is still fun to be had in exploring the pictorial detail of the rooms in the tower and the antics of their weird and wonderful animal occupants.

Young readers who are beginning to relish the written word should delight in The Lost Treasure of Captain Blood and The Viking Saga of Harri Bristlebeard, though older children will be more able to appreciate all aspects of the humour. The pictures feature wide-eyed infants, cutesy animals and pantomime villains in colourful surroundings which are calmer than those of the Wally books. Each book is built around a story, and starts by introducing characters and setting. The tales move briskly forward across lively double-spread illustrations scattered with speech bubbles and overlaid with blocks of narrative text, comic strips, and author asides on what to look for. There are also number puzzles and mazes to solve. This rich variety of format pulls in puzzle-lovers and bookworms alike.

The Magic Stopwatch applies the interactive adventure treatment to an information text, creating an illusion of participation as the reader is taken right into the pictures of popular sporting events and games: "Swing beside the girl in green on the asymmetric bars. You need strong arms and shoulders. " Lively descriptive paragraphs work with the visuals to produce an instructive source of knowledge about both the language of sport and the rules and tactics of play. The Wally factor is provided by a search for various hidden objects, plus the eponymous "magic stopwatch", which is so fiendishly difficult to find that I had to resort to a magnifying glass.

More sophisticated visually is Dorling Kindersley's horror-strewn Haunted Castle by Leo Hartas. Here, as in Fighting Fantasy game books, the reader must plot the correct pathway through the story or reach a dead end. Intricately detailed artwork evocative of Bosch and Breugel encompasses the zigzagging progress of a brother and sister as they try to track down their uncle in his gruesomely populated castle home. Like those medieval paintings, the chief protagonists appear in different scenes within the same picture, each of which carries the same richness of story and subplot as a chapter of conventional fiction.

Nods and winks to art and cultural history are interspersed like asides. The "true" path winds up in the castle's "Control Room", where the whole experience is exposed as a visual con-trick: Haunted Castle is nothing but an elaborately contrived theme park masterminded by the children's uncle. A book which is a feast for the eyes.

Chris Stephenson is language co-ordinator at Eversley primary school, north London

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