Crack open that paintbox

25th March 2005 at 00:00
Jane Doonan's choices are packed with activities, moral messages and gorgeous illustrations

Three Monsters

By David McKee

Andersen Press pound;9.99

Me and My Mammoth

By Joel Stewart

Macmillan Children's Books pound;9.99

Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story

By Tom Willans

Boxer Books pound;10.99

Three Bears

By Cliff Wright

Templar Publishing pound;9.99

Little Rabbit Runaway

By Harry Horse

Puffin pound;10.99

A Bunch of Daisies

By Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt

Random House pound;10.99

Katie Morag and the Birthdays

By Mairi Hedderwick

Random House pound;10.99

It's springtime and activity's in the air. The characters in these new picture books are going at it hammer and tongs, creating anything from customised sun-specs to a log cabin.

Take David McKee's Three Monsters, a contemporary fable that works on many levels, for readers of all ages save the youngest. Two monsters (one red, the other blue) live on a rocky island that they are too lazy to improve.

From across the sea comes a yellow monster whose home has been destroyed.

He's looking for a place to live in return for work, but as the red monster explains, funny foreigners aren't welcome on their island.

Worse is to follow, until ultimately the yellow monster wins through by clever thinking and hard effort. Adult sharers and key stage 3 pupils might consider themes of exploitation and underestimation of foreign workers; key stage 2 could debate the concept of difference; and for key stage 1 children the triumph of the underdog is always satisfying.

The young boy narrator of Me and My Mammoth by Joel Stewart likes making things, but they don't turn out quite as expected: a situation familiar to many children. His kit for a bi-plane yields a large hairy mammoth, who in turn makes some wings and a propeller (the genes obviously were inherited) and boy and beast wing their way to adventures in the Arctic. The lyrical style of Stewart's earlier picture books gives way to one that has less emphasis on colour. Outlines and sooty shading in sepia-black, quite densely applied in places, gives the pictures an intriguing old-fashioned look.

Wait! I Want to Tell You a Story by Tom Willans is built on an entertaining extended joke. A small muskrat, a veritable Sheherazade, staves off becoming a large hungry tiger's supper by telling him a story. The story is made up of a chain of other stories about predators and prey: frog and shark, lizard and snake, fly and spider. Each page-turn brings a surprise.

Pace increases; suspense builds up; there's an unexpected climax halfway through and a snappy conclusion. Lively line and lightly swashed paint gives the impression that the images were made at speed, fast and sure as the animals in action on the frame. Such drama begs to be read aloud, as an afternoon treat.

The next four books see the return of some established favourite characters, beginning with those designed for the youngest pupils. Black Bear, Brown Bear and White Bear make another appearance in Cliff Wright's Three Bears. Their friendship is tested when Brown Bear becomes jealous of the time the other two bears spend together, and behaves badly. Very badly.

The others, who have been secretly making Brown Bear a new house, are wonderfully forgiving and tactful.

No need for many words, as the pictures express feelings so clearly. Wright is an accomplished draughtsman, capturing the bears and their world in muted, earthy colours, and in hand-drawn borders with the frame-lines ruffled like fur. The book was inspired by the bears that live in the rainforest of western Canada, and pupils can log on to a website to find out more.

Little Rabbit, Harry Horse's wilful hero, is guaranteed to make reception and Year 1 children feel wise, as they watch him nibble off more than he can chew. In Little Rabbit Runaway he feels hard done by, and scampers off to behind the hedge at the bottom of his garden to build a house of his own. He's soon joined by Molly Mouse, another runaway, but Little Rabbit rapidly discovers that it's tough taking on a world beyond the burrow.

Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt's characters, the irrepressible Daisy and her long-suffering mum, return in A Bunch of Daisies. There are three stories: Daisy's guide to puddles, her game with paints, and her puzzle based on animals drawn from underneath. The last two activities could start a classroom craze. Simple shapes enclosed in smooth black outlines and flat, dazzling hues give the pictures an upbeat look.

Katie Morag and the Birthdays by Mairi Hedderwick will be best appreciated by independent readers who can immerse themselves in an idyllic family life on the pages, which span a year on Katie Morag's island of Struay.

The book, which opens with a family tree and closes with calendar spreads, offers a range of reading experiences and activities: 12 short stories are punctuated by instructions for making cards, presents, and a birthday cake.

One important theme is that of giving: presents don't have to cost a fortune, and come in many guises. In a classroom copy, the calendar spreads could record everyone's birthday; now there's a happy thought.

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