In the face of reality

21st March 2003 at 00:00
Jane Doonan reviews picture books that take children on a flight of fantasy

THE MAGIC BED. By John Burningham. Jonathan Cape pound;10.99.

BAD NEWS I'M IN CHARGE. By Bruce Ingman. Walker Books pound;10.99.

MANNEKEN PIS: A simple story of a boy who peed on a war. Retold by Vladimir Radunsky. Walker Books pound;10.99.

THE POCKET DOGS. By Margaret Wild. Illustrated by Stephen Michael King. Southwood Books pound;4.99, paperback.

FOUR FRIENDS TOGETHER. By Sue Heap. Walker Books pound;10.99.

TINY. By Paul Rogers. Illustrated by Korky Paul. Red Fox pound;5.99, paperback.

In this collection of picture books, intriguing contrasts cluster around the notion of scale - fantasies on an intimate, and a grand scale; getting separated from loved ones in war, and peace; travels which cover distances between adjacent chairs, and from the mud to the stars.

John Burningham's first picture book, Borka, is now published in a handsome 40th-anniversary edition (Jonathan Cape pound;10.99) and he'll continue to keep readers spellbound with his latest, The Magic Bed. Georgie out-grows his cot, and chooses his new bed in a shop selling old furniture. As the previous owner told the shopkeeper, it's a magic bed - it takes its occupant travelling. And Georgie finds it does just this. One night he is in fairyland, the next in the jungle. He flees from pirates, swims with dolphins (that's why his bed is wet sometimes) and races witches. The spare enigmatic text is accompanied by pictures that seem still to be materialising; the pen line feels its way, in strokes and hesitations - light yet firm, or tremulous and fine - as the context demands; rich colour is reserved for the scenes of magic travel. The story has a strong appeal because it's a fantasy that is true to reality - everyone has a kind of magic bed.

Good news: Bruce Ingman's dry sense of humour and delight in the absurd is evident on every page in Bad News I'm in Charge. Young Danny's mega-fantasy is that he's in charge of just about everything: his parents' bedtime, his friends, school, the laws of his land. Then he discovers that, just like royalty, he's expected to attend no end of dreary official functions. It doesn't take long for Danny to discover the joys of delegation. The illustrations are deceptively simple; sophisticated spatial compositions are given the attack associated with a child's artwork - swish-swashes of juicy paint, and wall-to-wall vibrant colour.

Manneken Pis, as told by Vladimir Radunsky, is an anti-war fable recalling the origin of the famous bronze statue in Brussels. Long ago during a terrible war, a little boy gets separated from his parents. He calls, he searches, he needs to find them, and up on the town walls, he also needs to take a pee. The fighters below get sprayed. Everything stops. And then laughter breaks out. The boy and his parents are re-united and the townsfolk erect a statue so that the young peacemaker will be remembered forever. Powerful artwork in a bold expressionist style, with vigorously painted shapes in saturated colour, serves both to acknowledge the violence of warfare and to distance it.

Margaret Wild's story The Pocket Dogs also centres on a separation, though this one is in a familiar setting. When Mr Pockets goes out shopping he pops Biff and Buff, his very small dogs, into the very large pockets of his coat. A hole develops in one pocket and Biff falls out. He's lost in a sea of legs in the supermarket, like many a small child. The text revels in repetitions and Stephen Michael King's cartoon-style pictures focus on feelings and fast moving action.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then ring up the curtain for Sue Heap's small domestic drama, Four Friends Together. It's like being at a play with the page for a stage, as a rabbit, a sheep, a little girl and a huge bear arrange and rearrange themselves on four chairs of assorted sizes in order to share one picture book. Simple shapes carry flat colour soft as fondant, and the images are on the same generous scale as the consideration these good friends show for each other.

The great space-spectacular, Tiny by Paul Rogers and Korky Paul, is now out in paperback. This ingenious story zooms away on a journey from the position of a flea on a dog's back to the outer reaches of the universe.

Tiny, the flea, is worried about his size, but when he looks at the stars he reckons that some of them are as small as he is. Young viewers will know better. The pictures are crammed with details to wonder over, and the concept should keep children talking for hours.

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