Every detail sets a mood
WHO CAN TELL? By Stuart Henson Illustrated by Wayne Anderson Hutchinson Pounds 9. 99
THE DINOSAURS ARE BACK AND IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT EDWARD! By Wendy Hartmann and Niki Daly Pictures by Niki Daly Bodley Head Pounds 9.99
WHY IS THE SKY BLUE? By Sally Grindley Illustrated by Susan Varley Andersen Pounds 8.99
A YEAR IN THE CITY By Kathy Henderson Illustrated by Paul Howard Walker Pounds 9.99
The best illustrators seduce the reader into a sense of wonder, says John Mole, as he reviews the pick of the latest picture books
Texture counts for so much in picture books. A mood is instantly established by the materials used for illustration and by their application: the density of hatching, the overlay of colour tones, the glow or lack of it in a wash, the balance between fine detail and the overall design of the frame.
This is particularly important where the book seeks to establish the reality of a dream world, where everyday domestic familiarity dissolves into a landscape charged with magic. Dimension and perspective, too, have a vital part to play in creating (or recreating) the experience, with, for example, the size of dream visitors in relation to the diminutive dreamer, a vertiginous aerial view of the home-base and so on. However imaginative the text, it's the pictures that extend the invitation - or do the damage.
Let the Lynx Come In and Who Can Tell? make an interesting and instructive comparison. Patrick Benson's illustrations to Jonathan London's story -about a boy holidaying with his father in the north woods of America who is visited one moonlit night by a lynx - are exemplary. They open up a plain, sufficient text, exploring all its magical possibilities.
The lynx (first seen by the boy through a crack in the door, face-to-face in a snowy landscape striped by the shadows of fir trees) steps across the threshold, grows to enormous proportions, takes the boy for a wonderful ride then returns him to where his father is still asleep by the potbelly stove, as he was in the first picture.
The ice-blue tones shine on the page, and in most of the picture the boy is a mere speck on the lynx's back - though in oneof them we move in on his enigmatic expression, a mix of apprehensiveness and dreamy contentment.What will convince any child of the reality of the experience are not just the dimensions but also the crisp, bristly detail of the lynx's fur ("Bunched like a fist I clench fur as Great Lynx creeps on big cat's feet") complemented by the boy's thatch of hair and the trees' snow-laden, spiny branches.
Wayne Anderson's pictures in Who Can Tell? are soft-focus and gauzily beautiful, but they seem too absorbed in their own tonality. Stuart Henson's poetic text concerns another visitation, this time by the badgers that a small boy has always wanted to see. They come snuffling through the night, eat the crusts he has put out for them and then "slip out of sight like children unwilling to break a spell".
There is a delicate, breathless hush about this simple and charming little incident, but somehow it seems over-inflated by the book's self-conscious glossiness. The boy, the badgers, the landscape are all incorporated into a skilful chiaroscuro of dreaminess that is, like the winsome depiction of the boy himself, just a bit too dewy-eyed ever to become magical.
It's quite a relief to turn to the rumbustious, cartoon fun had by Wendy Hartmann and Niki Daly in The Dinosaurs are Back and it's All Your Fault Edward!. This is an unpretentious romp of a visitation, in which a dinosaur egg hatches under Edward's bed, producing a cheery little dinosaur that Edward and his brother domesticate until the grown-up dinosaurs come looking for the egg they think has been stolen.
Splashy pages full of mischievous business progress from little cameos (often four to the page) to full-page monster spreads towards the end, crammed with towering portcullis mouths, glaring eyes and a few flapping pterodactyls for good measure. More mayhem than magic- but engagingly fantastic. The page on which the King of the Dinosaurs appears is guaranteed to provoke a shriek of fearful delight.
In Why is the Sky Blue? Sally Grindley has come up with a gentle, almost old-fashioned, little tale about an eager rabbit who keeps asking questions of a donkey but does not listen to the answers.
The donkey, a model of teacherly patience to begin with, is by the end no less lively as he recaptures his sense of fun through their friendship.
Susan Varley's pictures are equally engaging. The rabbit bounces all over the page, and, though donkeys in watercolour nearly always look like Ernest Shepard's Eeyore, this one has a sweet-natured character of his own.
With Kathy Henderson and Paul Howard's A Year in the City, we are back in the world of the densely-populated, down-to-earth picture book that celebrates the way we live now.
Each month is packed with its familar activities, from drivers scraping ice off their frozen cars in January, through August traffic jams, trick-or-treating in November (a lovely, pumpkin-glowing plate to illustrate this), bright lights above the rooftops in December, then back to January. The pictures are bold, busy, and touched occasionally by the magic of the everyday.