Deep and meaningful

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Jane Doonan recommends picture books that explore the emotions and imagination

Kate, the Cat and the Moon By David Almond and Stephen Lambert Hodder Children's Books, pound;10.99

Michael Rosen's Sad Book By Michael Rosen Illustrated by Quentin Blake Walker Books, pound;10.99

Felipa and the Day of the Dead By Birte Mueller North-South Books, Pounds 9.99

Death in a Nut Retold by Eric Maddern Illustrated by Paul Hess Frances Lincoln, pound;10.99

Mr Beast By James Sage Illustrated by Russell Ayto Collins Children's Books, pound;10.99

Lizzie Nonsense by Jan Ormerod Little Hare Books, pound;9.99

Ish By Peter H Reynolds Walker Books, pound;9.99

What makes these picture books special is that each is about a close relationship. Some describe experiences, others tell stories, and all are worth talking over. We begin with a girl and a cat. Kate, the Cat and the Moon is David Almond's first picture book. When "all the house was lost in dreams", Kate awakens and responds to the cry of a cat, and in a whisker of time she is transformed; with pointy ears and big eyes, she joins the cat for adventures in the shining night. Stephen Lambert keeps the pictures uncluttered. Action floats freely, with a surprise fold-out page allowing for an expansive high viewpoint of the sky full of dreams. Images are on a generous scale with subtle textures and hushed colour; dusky violets and luminous blue predominate. Words and images are in a poetic and mesmeric partnership.

Michael Rosen grieves for Eddie, his son who died, in Michael Rosen's Sad Book. He writes simply and directly about his personal mourning process, and recalls happy memories of Eddie. Rosen does not underestimate what children aged from about eight can grasp and empathise with, given adult mediation, perhaps, for the first reading. As he says, "Sad" is everywhere, any time, for anyone. Quentin Blake accompanies the text with expressive drawings which look as if they were a struggle to set down; nothing neat or finished, lines raw as the emotions being described.

Felipa and the Day of the Dead, set in Bolivia, shows how a whole community honours loved ones who have died. Felipa is curious about her late grandmother's soul, and is reassured when she discovers that souls come visiting on November 1. Everyone cooks special treats, decorates the graves with flowers, food and candles, makes music and shares memories. And Felipa talks to her grandmother, just as she used to do. The illustrations, in a tactile folk-art style, are painted in warm colours.

Eric Maddern retells a traditional Scottish tale with a kernel of wisdom, Death in a Nut. Death is coming for Jack's sick mother. Death says it's only natural but Jack overpowers him and shoves him inside a hazelnut shell. Mother recovers. But with the whole natural world protected, everyone gets very hungry. Jack has to release Death, for without death there cannot be life. Thankfully, Mother is given a reprieve. Paul Hess's soft-focus illustrations display out-of-kilter naturalism: the world tilts, horizons curve, perspective shifts.

Mr Beast introduces Charlie, who is mad about monsters and dotes on doughnuts. So does Mr Beast, who works in the garden shed (a writer, perhaps?). When greedy Charlie eats Mr Beast's doughnuts, Mr Beast says he'll eat Charlie in the night. The game is on, and a delicious dose of horrors looms. The action is matched by Russell Ayto's brilliant cartooning with its whiff of mock-gothic, disorienting colours, dynamic framing, and sound-inducing graphics. Blim. Blam. BLUMP!

Set in the Australian bush, Lizzie Nonsense records the passing days for Lizzie, her Mama and the baby while Papa is away. Lizzie, an imaginative child, can transform anything: a bough becomes a princess's steed, turnips are peaches and cream. In a naturalistic style, the paintings have a sensory appeal, with layering of paints, beautiful contrasts between dappling light and velvet shadows, and colour ranging from burning gold, blazing cobalt and copper to shades of gray.

Ish by Peter Reynolds is perfect for a child who has lost confidence in drawing. When Ramon feels he can't get anything right and gives up making pictures, his wise sister finds something good-ish to say about his crumpled rejects, giving him a new perspective. Ramon picks up his pencil again, expresses himself ish-ly and lives creatively ever after.

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