Cool creatures

21st February 1997 at 00:00
AN ACORN FOR TEA, HIDE AND NARROW SQUEAK, By Julie Sykes, Illustrated by Catherine Walters, Magi Pounds 7.99 each

THE HUNGRY OTTER, By Mark Ezra, Illustrated by Gavin Rowe, Magi Pounds 8.99. FROM BIRTH TO DEATH, By Irene Yates, Illustrated by Graham Austin, Belitha Press Pounds 8.99. SARN, THE story OF AN OTTER. GREYFUR, THE story OF A RABBIT. DIGGER, THE story OF A MOLE. FANG, THE Story Of A Fox, By Tessa Potter, Illustrated by Ken Lilly, Andersen Pounds 8.99 each

BACK TO THE BLUE, By Virginia McKenna, Illustrated by Ian Andrew. THE ELEPHANT TRUCK, By Will Travers, Illustrated by Lawrie Taylor. THE WOLF WATCHERS, By Alison Hood and Claudio Sillero-Zubiri, Illustrated by Andy DaVolls. JOURNEY TO FREEDOM, By Virginia McKenna, Illustrated by Nick Mountain, Templar Publishing for Born Free Foundation Pounds 7.99 each. Little Caribou, Written and illustrated by Sarah Fox-Davies, Walker Pounds 8.99

Geoff Fox on tales that teach about wildlife. These animal stories for young readers vary widely in their concern to provide information through fictional narratives.

An Acorn for Tea, Hide and Narrow Squeak and The Hungry Otter will charm many young children. They are simple, strongly patterned tales, and do not pretend to be guides to the natural world any more than Charlotte's Web is a handbook on arachnids.

Rufus, in An Acorn for Tea, bears as much kinship to a wild red squirrel as Squirrel Nutkin. In Hide and Narrow Squeak, when Rolly Rabbit inadvertently wakes the slumbering Wiz Weasel, Wiz's cry of "Go away, you rowdy rabbit" hardly evokes the redness of tooth and claw. Rather confusingly, the artists do adhere to the naturalistic. The rabbits, badgers, foxes and so on are unclothed and fully furred. Only Gavin Rowe in The Hungry Otter suggests a hint of the human in Little Otter's mischievous features and the canny tilt of Crow's beak. In all three books, the animals are masters of Standard English.

Not a word escapes the creatures in the tales of Sarn, Greyfur, Digger and Fang, which make up an enticingly detailed picture of the year's cycle in a small stretch of rural Britain. There's much to explore. Each end paper maps the area, but in a different season. Major characters from one story make brief appearances in the others, and minor players pursue small, sometimes harsh, dramas of their own in the illustrations.

At the end of each narrative, cameos extracted from earlier pictures point to these miniature stories: "Can you find a kingfisher lying dead on the ice? It was unable to catch fish from the frozen pool." There is also a very feasible "Things to Do" spread for each season. It is no surprise to find an acknowledgement to a museum of natural history in this well informed, unsentimental series.

The single volume From Birth to Death also concentrates on cycles, this time focusing on one pond. Here the narrative element is merely in the voice, much like that of a television wildlife documentary: "Summer is here, and the pond is full of life" - and indeed it is. To read these books, you'd think the British countryside was teeming with otters - this pond is visited by one, and there are deer, herons, newts, pike, swallows, grebes and several kinds of duck.

The illustrations are precise and readers are frequently offered an illuminating perspective enabling them to see both above and below the pond's surface. The book's designers have been wise enough to keep their pictures uncluttered by over-long blocks of words - they let the pictures and the observant reader do the work together.

The Born Free Foundation has also been aware of how its books will be read by young readers (probably of junior age range). Many children will know something of the stories already, since they record real-life rescues of emperilled creatures.

The artwork by Ian Andrew is especially fine in Back to the Blue, the story of how the last three captive dolphins in England were returned to the wild. The authorial viewpoint is close to the animal, so we share its confusions and fears, including those prompted by the would-be rescuers, though there is no humanising of those reactions.

Each narrative is followed by a section entitled (perhaps unfortunately) "The real story" - a log recalling the events we have just followed from the animal's perspective. Here the tone is more matter-of-fact.

Little Caribou is the most satisfying of this selection. The story tracks the life of a young caribou's first year with no distorting overlay of human emotion or speech.

The first end paper reveals around 100 caribou, seen from the air - spectral shapes migrating across the landscape. On the final end paper, we see what seems to be the same picture, but now the males' antlers have grown, there are new calves, more mature coats are slightly rust-coloured.

The drama of the narrative is the drama of the year's turning - the arrival of the bulls, the burst of colour in the late summer tundra, a brief but peaceable encounter with humans, the struggles for male supremacy, the trailing wolves, the melting ice - and the seasons' wheel turns once more.

It is a physical pleasure to handle a book which respects both its subject and its reader.

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