Creature discomforts

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Jane Doonan reviews the pick of the latest illustrated story books

High-quality picture books earn their places on the classroom library shelf. The books featured here won't disappoint. Together they present a portable picture gallery in an array of highly accomplished styles to open a child's eyes to art's possibilities; their subject matter, themes, the stories' geographical or literary origins, and links with times ancient and modern, are all sources for exploration and discussion.

Take Jessica Souhami's The Famous Adventure of a Bird-Brained Hen (Frances Lincoln, pound;10.99, illustrated here). It's perfect for a reception class audience, with a short, rhythmic, playful text partnered by collage in lollipop colour. To keep young viewers focused while they watch where the story is going, Souhami adds something to look out for in every frame.

Spot the bad guy, Foxy Loxy, streaking back and forth behind the trees long before he enters the story; and see how cleverly Penny Henny, Ducky Daddles and Co improvise hats to protect themselves from falling sky. Mercifully, Souhami changes the ending of the old English folk tale, Chicken Licken - and her characters fly off to tell the tale.

The next four books will engage pupils in Years 2 and above. Stefan Czernecki's illustrations for The Sea King (Trade Wind Books, pound;9.95) are spectacular, with images inspired by the stylised forms of Russian folk art. The story, by Jane Yolen and Shulamith Oppenheim, introduces Morskoi Tsar in his palace of crystal beneath the sea. It has an abundance of folkloric elements offering plenty of scope for intertextual forays: a talking animal, a promise easier to give than to keep, 12 shape-altering princesses, a prince, three tests, and a witch.

Maui and the Big Fish, by Barbara Ker Wilson, illustrated by Frane Lessac (Frances Lincoln, pound;10.99) is a tale from the other side of the world and in a visually contrasting style. The boy, Maui, brought up and taught magic by the god Tama, returns to Earth to find his mother, and discovers he also has four brothers, fishermen who don't take kindly to him.

Undaunted, Maui's own catch of five mighty fish leads to the creation of the Polynesian islands. Lessac pictures Maui's world in a naive style, with skies of lilac and lemon, and warm exotic hues. The children in my local primary school headed straight for the classroom world map to look up the islands' location.

The same map will be useful for locating story-origins in the next two picture books. The Star People: a Lakota Story, by S D Nelson (Abrams, pound;10.95), a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in Dakota, exemplifies the ancient idea, shared by many cultures, that after death we may be transformed into a star. On the Great Plains in the 1800s, Young Wolf and his older sister are saved from a prairie fire by their deceased grandmother, who leaves the sky to guide them. Forget about the usual picture-book images of American Indians in their boutique buckskins; Nelson's fresh style is a contemporary interpretation of traditional Lakota Sioux art. There's an "author's note" to help junior researchers.

The Elephant's Pillow: a Chinese Bedtime Story, by Diana Reynolds Roome (Frances Lincoln, pound;10.99) is set in Imperial China. When the Emperor dies, and the Imperial Elephant suffers a change in his bedtime ritual, he is inconsolable and cannot sleep until Sing Lo, a boy who relishes a challenge, finds out what this exacting animal needs. In Jude Daly's elegant illustrations, which include pictograms, frames on screens, and scenes of old Peking, everything is scaled down except the image of the elephant. You won't need to ask pupils to tell you their bedtime rituals.

Penny Dale's Princess, Princess (Walker Books pound;10.99) is an introduction to playful parody. Boys who might initially feel excluded by the soft-focus illustrations conjured from the colours of dreams, are cunningly drawn in. This particular princess (who looks about five years old) is sleeping in her castle, surrounded by her court of anthropomorphic toys. They have been bad-spelled by a disgruntled young fairy. The narrator repeatedly asks "Who will wake the princess with a kiss?" All six-year-olds think they know the answer I but there is a surprise in store.

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