Families and how to revive them

7th April 1995 at 01:00
Ruby, By Colin Thompson, Julia MacRae, Pounds 9.99 1 85681 089 5. Grace Family, By Mary Hoffman Illustrated by Caroline Binch, Frances Lincoln, Pounds 8.99 0 7112 0868 9.

My heart sank when I saw that Ruby, Colin Thompson's book about an Austin 7, comes complete with a competition to win such a car. Is there no refuge from such gimmickry?

But the quest to find Ruby's registration number among the book's labyrinthine, surreal pictures is irresistible, partly because in the process of searching, you become engaged with the astonishing detail of Thompson's magical and amusing illustrations.

This is the story of George and Mavis and their children Kevin and Tracy, a family of little people who live in the root of a tree. Only Uncle Austin, who had been in the outside world, "knew about its wonderful and terrible ways". Their adventures begin when Kevin is attracted to the sumptuous feast of some nearby picnickers and disappears into their basket, which is strapped to the back of their Austin 7. Kevin's family follows on a journey into the unknown.

This is a compelling book. Thompson's clever use of space and perspective takes the eye on exciting journeys. You are drawn endlessly to the quirkiness of the detail, which provides amusement for both adults and children.

The car is full of interior, imaginary worlds where, for example, books entitled Nihilism for Beginners or La Belle Dame Sans Muesli, set out inside a briefcase, become the buildings of a cityscape for unknown creatures.

In certain respects the book, with its resonant colour passages and evocation of the English landscape of the 1930s, when Austin 7s were first produced, represents a pastoral idyll shattered by the motor car. Yet any serious environmental messages are swathed in layer upon layer of different images and meaning. Ruby is a mild, gentle piece of work that will provide hours of fascination.

Grace Family tackles two thorny issues that have largely been ignored in children's literature - race and divorce. This is the story of Grace, born in England, who visits The Gambia with her grandmother to see her father, who has remarried and now has a new family of two children.

Mary Hoffman has written a poignant story of a young girl's attempts to come to terms with her broken family.

Grace's sense of loss and loneliness over her parents' break-up is reinforced by stories "in school reading books" of stereotypical families. "Grace saw that all the families had a mother and a father, a boy and a girl and a dog and a cat." Finally, she grows to realise the wisdom of her grandmother's words: "Families are what you make them."

Hoffman does not make any attempt to romanticise Grace's predicament, her journey to Africa, or her new-found relationship with her father. She does not try to resolve the irresolvable, but this is a story that makes the complexities of modern family relationships accessible, acceptable and meaningful to children.

This sequel to Hoffman's best-selling Amazing Grace is complemented once again by Caroline Binch's illustrations, which skilfully capture character, gesture and movement and are full of narrative. Based on photographic images, rippling with the light of Africa, they display a realism tempered by the abstraction and colour of African vegetation and fabric.

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